Every political reporter has a Karl Rove story, and I have mine. I met Rove in Austin in 1995, when I was writing a profile of presidential aspirant Phil Gramm. Rove had done direct mail for Gramm's campaigns for Senate, and I expected nothing but praise for the senator. Rove did praise him, but he would occasionally interject a surprisingly critical note about Gramm. He said that people in Texas were "sick of being dunned for money" by Gramm. Gramm was, Rove said, "one of the least flexible men I've ever met in public policy." I left the interview very proud of myself for having cleverly extracted these candid admissions from a Gramm supporter. They went directly into my profile of Gramm. Several years later, I realized that Rove had known exactly what he was doing. He was already working for George W. Bush, had his eye on a Bush presidency in 2000 and didn't want to do anything to help a rival Texas politician.
In this incident — and in hundreds of others — Rove showed himself to be a master of political guile. In managing Bush's election in 2000 and reelection in 2004, he also showed himself to be an expert tactician. But Rove has always wanted to be remembered as something more than a successful consultant — he wants to be remembered as "the architect," in George W. Bush's words, of a new realignment that would do for the Republican party what Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal did for the Democratic Party. As early as 1998, Rove was predicting that the 2000 election would be a realigning election similar to that of 1896. "I look at this time as 1896, the time where we saw the rise of William McKinley and his vice president, Teddy Roosevelt ... That was the last time we had a shift in political paradigm," Rove told the Austin American-Statesman in November 1998. Rove suggested that in 2000 a "charismatic leader" championing a "new paradigm" could displace "the old paradigm of Cold War politics and the old New Deal." Now who could he have been referring to?
Rove continued to promote the 1896 analogy during the 2000 election, promising a new Republican realignment that would include Hispanics, suburbanites, and independents, but Vice President Al Gore's popular vote edge temporarily stilled Rove's talk of realignment. After the 2002 election, however, he was back again talking up 1896 and realignment. He told an audience at the University of Utah after the November election that it wasn't just that Republicans had won seats in Congress in the first off-year election, but that they had picked up 195 state legislative seats when on average the party in power is expected to lose 350. "We are 545 seats ahead of where we should [be] if we were suffering the normal depredations of the first off-year election," Rove declared. "I think something ... fundamental is happening there, but we will only know it retrospectively, in two years or four years or six years [when we] look back and say the dam began to break in 2002."
After Bush's victory in 2004, Rove was at it again. Here he is with Mike Wallace:
WALLACE: I know that your favorite election is William McKinley's victory in 1896. And neither of us were there, despite what people may think. Does this election have the same potential to grow the size and give a governing majority to the Republican Party for decades?Last November's election finally silenced Rove. In that election, the Democrats didn't merely win back the Congress — which Rove could blame on congressional corruption — but met Rove's own standard for a genuine political reversal by winning back 321 state legislative seats. To be sure, the 2006 elections didn't show that a Democratic majority was about to displace the Republican one, but they did show that Rove had not realigned American politics. At best, conditions had returned to what political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called an "unstable equilibrium." At worst for Rove, the country was headed (as it seemed to be from 1996 to 2000) toward a Democratic majority.
ROVE: It does. We'll only tell with time. I mean, the victory in 1896 was similarly narrow, and I mean — not narrow, similarly structured. But it took — you know, we only knew that it was an election that realigned American politics years afterwards. And I think the same thing will be here.
What, then, is Rove's political legacy? In his public statements about the 2002 and 2004 elections, Rove dutifully credited Bush and the "Bush agenda," but in his discussions with political journalists, he conveyed a different message: that these victories were the product of a novel new strategy that he had developed after 2000. The new strategy consisted of expanding the Republican base in the "exurbs" and rural areas; using a "72-Hour Task Force" to mobilize that base on election day; and using discrete spending programs and micro-targeting to pick off vulnerable Democratic constituencies among Hispanics, African-Americans, and Catholics. The theory was that with demography favoring the Republicans, these tactical maneuvers would be sufficient to guarantee a Republican majority. In "One Party Country," a laudatory book about Rove that appeared before the 2006 election, Los Angeles Times reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten wrote that "like a dominant sports franchise, the Republican Party has put in place a series of structural and operational advantages that give the GOP a political edge for the foreseeable future."