The Rove Legacy

He concedes nothing. He accepts no responsibility. He blames liberals. Why Karl Rove is still an icon for today’s Republicans.

By Thomas B. Edsall

Tagged Bush AdministrationKarl Rove

Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight By Karl Rove  • Simon and Schuster • 2010 • 520 pages • $30

The evidence of the wreckage of the Bush years can be found everywhere. Under this conservative president, federal spending rose from 18.5 percent of GDP in 2001 to 21 percent in 2008, while a $125.3 billion surplus became a $364.4 billion deficit. Median family income, which had grown from $42,429 in 1980 to $46,049 in 1990, and which grew again during the Clinton Administration to $50,557 by 2000, shrank under George W. Bush, standing at $50,223 in 2007 before the start of the recession. During the Bush presidency, three million jobs were created. That compares to 23.1 million during Bill Clinton’s two terms, and 16 million during Ronald Reagan’s. The rate of job creation under Bush was the lowest under any post-World War II president.

Courage and Consequence, Karl Rove’s new memoir, “Bush’s Brain” rejects these facts out of hand, arguing that Bush successfully “alter[ed] the conservative movement that he came to lead. And the direction he steered it in was productive, principled, and healthy for the country.” To reach this conclusion, Rove ignores a staggering record of arrogance, recklessness, and negligence–a record awesome in its consequences. It is not as if this record was unavailable to Rove. Time may have diminished his recall of some of the details, but the magnitude of the damage inflicted by the Administration is indelible.

Voters seek three crucial areas of expertise in a president: risk management; national defense and the conduct of war; and fiscal responsibility. Bush fell short on each. Most famously, Bush failed to respond proactively to his August 6, 2001 daily CIA briefing, headlined “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US,” which warned of “suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

In addition to the loss of 2,985 lives, the costs of 9/11 defy measurement. The Congressional Research Service sought to tally early losses and expenditures, citing $40 billion in payouts by the insurance industry; $15 billion in direct subsidies and loans to the airline industry; the dislocation, disruption, and destruction of 18,000 businesses in New York; layoffs of 130,000 New York metro area employees; and the loss to New York City of more than $3 billion in taxes. The Federal Reserve took several steps to inject money into the economy–for example, bringing down the federal funds rate to half of what it had been just prior to 9/11. These steps were widely credited with preventing further collapse of the economy in 2001, but this kind of monetary and fiscal policy arguably contributed to the credit bubble and ultimately to the implosion of that bubble in 2008.

Second, in response to 9/11, Bush invaded Iraq without the backing of the U.N. or of key allies. The invasion was opposed by nations such as China, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, among others. Bush invaded Iraq without preparation for reconstruction, and adopted policies there that weakened the civilian infrastructure and strengthened the terrorist insurgency. The invasion forced the transfer of manpower and other resources away from Afghanistan, which the United States had attacked with much broader international and domestic support. Neglect of the Afghan effort resulted in a revival, in that region, of the Taliban and al Qaeda, and has led to the prolongation of that war, now in its ninth year. The Congressional Research Service reported last September that funding for these wars could total between $1.3 and $1.8 trillion from 2001 to 2019.

Third, Bush, and the people he appointed, oversaw–and overlooked a period of breathtaking financial speculation, and failed to regulate the explosive growth of subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and other exotic financial instruments. Banks and companies profiting over the course of the bubble had all been major contributors to Bush’s 2004 campaign: real estate, $10.5 million; securities, investment, and various financial services firms, $14.3 million; contractors and construction services, $5.2 million; insurance, $3.2 million; commercial banks, $3.1 million. Campaign contributions do not in themselves tell the whole story, but are rather a signal of the corporate and commercial interests that wielded power over the action–or inaction–of the government regulatory apparatus during the Bush years.

The price of Bush’s dereliction was immense. The Bush presidency terminated with the nation caught in the worst economic meltdown in 75 years. In the United States alone, more than 8.4 million jobs were lost and nearly three million homes were foreclosed on, with more to come. The number of personal and commercial bankruptcies reached unprecedented levels. In 2008–a single year–American households lost $11 trillion, 18 percent of their wealth. Bush left office with the same stunned and uncomprehending look he revealed on September 11, when aides whispered in his ear, during a reading to Florida schoolchildren, that two hijacked planes had rammed into and brought down the two World Trade Center towers, destroying the financial heart of Manhattan.

Writing Courage and Consequence posed a major challenge for Rove: as a loyal aide, how could he write 520 pages that maintained a semblance of intellectual integrity without doing violence to the memory of this failed presidency? He couldn’t, so he didn’t. His solution: Whenever possible, omit information casting a negative light on his leader; when omission becomes impossible, blame others.

Rove’s book is more notable for what it leaves out than for what it includes. Paul Bremer, the administrator charged with overseeing the reconstruction of Iraq, and Jim O’Beirne, the politically appointed Pentagon official responsible for hiring staff to work under Bremer, are left out of the narrative. The record of these two men and their $18 billion budget has been documented in detail by Thomas Ricks (Fiasco) and Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Imperial Life in the Emerald City). Any serious attempt to deal with the Bush Administration’s handling of Iraq would have to address Ricks’s exhaustively backed up charge that “Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 may ultimately come to be seen as one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy.

And then there is Richard A. Clarke, chief counter-terrorism adviser on the National Security Council, who contended that Bush was determined to set the stage for an invasion of Iraq

The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, “I want you to find whether Iraq did this.” Now he never said, “Make it up.” But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this. I said, “Mr. President. We’ve done this before. We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There’s no connection.” He came back at me and said, “Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there’s a connection.”

Asking Rove to address the issues raised by Ricks, Chandrasekaran, and Clarke may be too much. They are, after all, the enemy. But how can a figure as prominent as Paul Bremer disappear in a 100,000-plus word memoir of the Bush years?

On a larger scale, there is no discussion of the unanticipated emergence of the Iraqi insurgency, the chaos that took over the country immediately following the U.S. invasion, and the role of U.S. policies in fostering that chaos. Instead, Rove blames Iraqis for setbacks: “The Iraqi army and police were all too often not well-enough prepared, too corrupt, or not sufficiently loyal to the central government to maintain order against these fanatics. American forces would secure and area and turn it over to Iraqi forces only to see terrorist thugs move in and destabilize the area again.

Rove makes no reference at all to the detrimental consequences of Bremer’s “de-Ba’athification” of the Iraqi civil service, nor to Bremer’s decision to disband 400,000 Iraqi troops, handing terrorist forces a recruitment pool of thousands of armed, out-of-work, enraged former soldiers. Rove does not address the consequences of diverting troops and resources to Iraq from Afghanistan, undermining the new Afghani government, weakening the effort to track down hostile forces, and ultimately leaving unfulfilled Bush’s promise to get bin Laden “dead or alive.

The equally memorable “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln also goes unnoted by Rove. He ignores not only Bush’s misjudgments, but those of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. He makes no mention of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan: 5,341 American dead, 34,569 seriously wounded; 884,494 non-American lives lost, and 1,657,367 non-Americans wounded, according to estimates based, in part, on data compiled by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Rove defends the invasion of Iraq, even in the absence of alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Bush believed overthrowing Saddam would provide an opportunity to transform the political culture of the Middle East, which had been fenced off from democracy and much of the progress of modernity. What’s more, he saw democracy as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, which spawned terrorist networks. Encouraging the expansion of democracy and freedom in Iraq and the Middle East would serve our national security interests by creating civil institutions that would have a stake in defeating Islamic extremists. Taken together, these considerations justified the decision to remove Saddam Hussein,” Rove declares, eliding, just as his boss did, the original WMD justification for the invasion–the grounds that formed the basis for congressional support.

Rove similarly ducks responsibility for the tidal wave of red ink that accompanied the expenditures for the two wars and the mountainous deficits spurred by the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts favoring the rich. He concludes a brief, 19-line examination of the budget process during the Bush years with the intriguing assertion that “all our hard work to reduce domestic non-security spending was washed away by Congressional Republicans. They insisted on earmarks that culminated in the 2005 Highway Bill’s famous “Bridge to Nowhere”–which would have spent hundreds of millions to extend a roadway to a nearly uninhabited island in Alaska.

Apparently, in Rove’s view, Bush was helpless in the face of Republican demands for pork. Rove chooses not to mention Bush’s power to veto bills weighed down with earmarks. Bush not only failed to veto such bills, he approved them with relish, including the appropriation legislation containing the Bridge to Nowhere. You won’t find it in Courage and Consequence, but on August 10, 2005, Bush went to an Illinois Caterpillar plant to sign into law the $286.4 billion Highway Bill. Bush made no mention of the 6,000 earmarks in the bill, including the Bridge to Nowhere, at the highly publicized event. Instead, Bush was effusive in his praise for the measure: “If we want people working in America, we got (sic) to make sure our highways and roads are modern. We’ve got to bring up this transportation system into the twenty-first century.

When Rove does deal with adverse events, such as the Republican loss of control of Congress in 2006, he is quick to absolve Bush of responsibility. “The conventional wisdom is that Iraq and an unpopular president cost us seats,” he writes. But we soon learn that the conventional wisdom is wrong. House Republicans did themselves in: “[T]he ‘culture of corruption charge’ was the one that really hurt, especially since Republicans outdid themselves that year with scandals…Other critics, especially Democrats, place the blame for the GOP’s defeat entirely at Bush’s feet. It is true that presidents are almost always liabilities in the second midterm. But Bush did more events for his party’s candidates and raised more money for them than he had two years before. And if Bush was such a drag, why were Republican losses in 2006 about average for second-term presidents?

In effect, Rove is saying that Bush lacked the power to stem Republican corruption in Congress, just as he had no authority to block the Bridge to Nowhere, and thus bears no responsibility for Republican defeat in 2006–or for the 2008 debacle.

Rove promised–and often boasted of–a Republican realignment. Instead, he and his boss left their party a wreck. What might post-Rove Republicans learn from the experience? One route–albeit unlikely–for future Republican presidential candidates may be to break the stranglehold of conservative interests on their party. It would take a skilled and ruthless politician to slit the carotid artery of an unsuspecting evangelical right; a politician with rhetorical skills exceptional enough to make a tax hike palatable to his own troops; a politician who could, in effect, wrest back the center of the electorate while bringing his own party along. In this respect, Reagan loyalists within the GOP have suppressed all memory of the Gipper’s sponsorship of the 1982 tax hike and his conversion of the Christian Right into a good-natured house pet, forced to content itself with the occasional table scrap.

Rove began the Bush presidency with a reputation as a hard-nosed strategist with an enviable track record in realigning Texas politics. In private conversation before and during the 2000 election, Rove was often thoughtful, perceptive, and reflective, an operative who expanded the scope of my understanding of politics. He had the capacity, rare among political consultants, to deal with ambiguity–with two contradictory truths at the same time–and to recognize the costs and the benefits of most decisions.

That perspective is entirely lacking in Courage and Consequence. If 9/11 constituted the initial ambush that plunged Bush–and Rove–into a national security maelstrom, and if the financial crisis of September 2008 constituted the final, devastating ambush–a pair of Pearl Harbors upending the world as Republicans knew it–this book demonstrates the limits of the Administration’s conceptual reach. Rove’s inability to confront the facts of a metamorphosing political reality reflects, in miniature, the long-range problems confronting the Republican Party. The ascendancy of conservatism in the contemporary GOP was driven by the South. For a time, the region was at the leading edge of public hostility to post-New Deal liberalism. But now, many of the achievements of that liberalism–civil and women’s rights, the sexual revolution, the rise of secular values, and accompanying trends–have in many respects, become institutionalized, no longer reliably prompting anxiety among the voting majority. So where the South was in the forefront of an up-and-coming movement, it is now charged with the chore of providing inspiration for a beleaguered, but by no means dead, minority alliance. The GOP’s continued dependence on the South is reflected in the region’s 45 percent share of all Republican House seats in the current Congress (80 out of 177).

Rove’s political intuitions, rooted in the politics of the South, became, by the 2006 midterms, less dependable, constricting the scope of his vision, keeping him tied to tactics that had worked in the past and that continued to work across Dixie and in his adopted home state of Texas. But he missed the significance of the national security and economic issues that had come to surpass the importance of the social values construct Rove was so at home with. Rove’s memoir showcases his current liabilities on the national stage, where politics has become more complex, subtle, and less susceptible to traditional wedge issues.

With Rove on the sidelines, the most likely path for the Republican Party–and the one it is almost certain to stick with going into the November 2010 elections–is to follow the lead of the volatile, infuriated Tea Party movement. In the short term, that is among the best political choices available. An April Pew Center poll found “a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government–a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.” Since 2000, the percentage of voters content with the federal government has nosedived from 33 to 19 percent. The share of voters “angry” with federal authorities has more than doubled from 10 to 21 percent. This suggests that the Republican congressional strategy of unified opposition to the Obama agenda may be politically advantageous looking toward November. But it is not at all clear yet whether the Tea Party movement can lay the foundation for a long-term strategy, a strategy based on mobilizing and consolidating as many white voters as possible in opposition to the liberal Democratic program.

The viability of standing in opposition to immigration and to redistributionist legislation while calling for a restoration of “individualism” and the allocation of resources by “meritocratic” competition cannot be determined until the country pulls out of recession. At that point, there will be a test of the state of American politics: Has demographic change–the growing numbers of pro-Democratic minorities, single women and men, and socially liberal, “new class,” well-educated, “knowledge-worker” voters–reached a tipping point, handing this center-left coalition its long-awaited stable Democratic majority? Or is the threat of just such a power shift sufficient to produce another iteration of the Silent Majority–Reagan Democrats, angry white men, and married women with children–that gave the Republican Party command of the agenda through most of the second half of the twentieth century?

Ironically, the most useful legacy of the Bush-Rove Administration may lie in its early, unfulfilled promise. Bush’s 2000 campaign commitment to serious education reform, his outspoken pre-election opposition to Republican cuts in the earned income tax credit (“I don’t think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor”), and his initial commitment to “compassionate conservatism” all signaled possible avenues to electoral success for a coalition facing diminishing demographic support. Such an ebbing coalition must win over a portion of the center for survival–the core of the 2000 Bush strategy, but its antithesis in 2004. Unfortunately, the real Bush/Rove legacy–the deliberate and relentless polarization of the electorate–lends itself to an ideologically rigid style of governing, a style that engenders the kind of missteps in the face of crisis characteristic of the disastrous years chronicled in these pages.


Read more about Bush AdministrationKarl Rove

Thomas B. Edsall is the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He covered national politics at The Washington Post for 25 years.

Also by this author

Seeing Red

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus