Did Karl Rove Lose a Generation of Republicans?

James Carville has an editorial in the Financial Times, of all places, explaining “How Karl Rove lost a generation of Republicans.”

He’s generous in noting that, “If we concluded our analysis in 2007 and confined our judgment merely to Mr Rove’s immediate electoral record, we would have no choice but to judge him a spectacular success. There is no doubt that Mr Rove won elections. He has perhaps one of the most remarkable win-percentages in modern American politics.”

From there, though, he touts a series of polls showing that the Democrats have made huge gains among young voters (which Carville surely knows is an oxymoron) and swing voters. Naturally, he blames Rove. So far as it goes, he’s got a point. There’s not much doubt that the divide and conquer strategy had its cost.

Still, Carville takes this well beyond its logical conclusions:

Mr Rove’s famous electoral strategy — focusing on the Republican base first — is also largely responsible for a shift in international public opinion against the US. It would not be fair to blame Mr Rove for the Iraq war. But it is clearly fair to blame his strategy for the Terry Schiavo fiasco and the Republicans’ adherence to the policies and doctrines of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson. The world and now most of the US are contemptuous of the theocratic underpinnings of the policy Mr Rove ushered into government.

I thought the Republican majority’s actions in the Schiavo case were outrageous and said so frequently. Still, I’m rather sure they’d have taken place were Rove to have retired after the 2004 election. But the idea that Rove — or anyone else — has ushered into government some sort of theocracy is absurd. What policies and doctrines have been adhered to, pray tell?

The irresponsible interventions of the former Republican majority in Congress notwithstanding, Terry Schiavo was allowed to die. Otherwise: Abortion? Still legal. Prayer in public schools? Still illegal. Gay marriage and civil unions: More legal than they were under Bill Clinton or ever before.

It’s likely true that the Republican Platform is out of step with the consensus on these issues, since the platform has been essentially static since 1980 and the public view has shifted inexorably leftward. But that’s hardly Karl Rove’s doing.

He has been assistant to the president, senior advisor and deputy chief of staff. Mr Rove was the architect of social security reform, immigration, the hiring and firing of justice department officials and the placement of literally thousands of ideologically driven buffoons throughout the US government. As deputy chief of staff he was also responsible for handling the White House post-Katrina reconstruction efforts. On these actions, history has already rendered its judgment on Mr Rove. And, as we say in Louisiana, “it ain’t pretty”.

This ascribes too much to Rove, I think. Certainly, it’s absurd to lay Katrina at his doorstep. Social Security reform barely made a blip on the radar screen;surely, it’s not responsible for the GOP’s poll standings.

The McCain-Kennedy immigration bill was bipartisan and the opposition was almost entirely from the Right. That issue, more than perhaps any other save the Iraq War, has hurt the GOP. But it goes against the thesis that Rove was pandering to the base at all costs. Indeed, politically speaking, the president and the party would have been far better served adopting the Rovian strategy.

To the extent that the under-25 cohort is permanently alienated from the Republican Party — and I’m more than a little dubious that it’s so — it has much, much more to do with the war than with a polarizing political strategist. And, ultimately, it’s decision-makers, not advisers, who get the blame for that. To paraphrase Rove’s predecessor, “It’s the President, stupid.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael says:

    Prayer in public schools? Still illegal.

    Uh, since when? Prayer has always been legal in school, individual or in groups. It’s only illegal for the school to sponsor it or make involvement compulsory. Sponsorship may even be legal so long as every religion’s prayers were sponsored equally, a daunting task given the range and variety of religions and denominations.

    Ever year my church takes part in the “See you at the pole” prayer where students meet at their school’s flag pole to pray before the start of classes. Most schools have an FCA (Fellowship of Christian athletes) that regularly meets and prays at school. So all this “prayer in public school is illegal” self victimization talk is pure crap.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Blah blah blah. So all this “prayer in public school is illegal” self victimization talk is pure crap.

    I was just using a shorthand there, presuming that most readers know the basic status of prayer in school.

    I’m not feeling victimized by the current situation, given that I’m an anti-theist. My point is simply that, liberal fears to the contrary, there has hardly been a shift toward religious values being enforced by the federal government in recent years. Indeed, most all the movement has been in the other direction.

  3. Sam says:

    Do the commentaries of Carville really merit this much attention? Slow day?

    Besides 1992, what has Carville done lately?

  4. Michael says:

    I was just using a shorthand there, presuming that most readers know the basic status of prayer in school.

    Most may know the basics, but some probably think that an individual praying at a school is illegal. I have seen too many people say “Prayer in school is illegal” to further their notion that liberals in American are persecuting Christians, and making personal religion illegal. I couldn’t let it go uncorrected.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    And, ultimately, it’s decision-makers, not advisers, who get the blame for that. To paraphrase Rove’s predecessor, “It’s the President, stupid.”

    Exactly. That was my take when the Rove resignation was announced—the portrayal of Rove as evil genius is part of a narrative that portrays GWB as an idiot. His the credit. His the blame.

  6. Cornfields says:

    Katrina was key in my opinion. It made the Bush administration appear incompetent, dishonest, uncaring and out-of-touch, not just in terms of Katrina, but also in terms of Iraq, the fight against terror, the economy etc.

    At the present it is very difficult for the public to judge Bush’s success in fighting radical Islam. It is difficult to judge claims of progress in Iraq. It is hard to judge just how likely that there will be major terrorist attack.

    Fairly or unfairly, I think Katrina shifted public presumptions of competence. For the first time Americans saw the jarring dissonance between Bush’s sunny optimism and the reality of failure on the ground

  7. Andy says:

    I was just using a shorthand there, presuming that most readers know the basic status of prayer in school.


  8. William d'Inger says:

    I live in the inner suburbs of New Orleans, within walking distance of the 17th Street canal, and I have a radically different opinion than most concerning the Federal response to Katrina.

    For reference purposes, or full disclosure if you prefer, my roof took extensive wind damage, and the house flooded deep enough to wipe out everything that wasn’t above waist high.

    Following the storm, the government did everything a reasonable person could expect from government. The supposed “failures” are the product of the unreasonable expectations of Liberal Think. They are the legacy of FDR, LBJ, etc. paternalistic philosophy.

    Were there failures? You bet there were, but that’s what a reasonable person would expect from a massive bureaucracy handling a massive disaster. Bureaucracies are not agile organizations flexible enough to tailor individual responses to every storm victim’s situation. They are only capable of blunderbuss responses. Believe me, if this had happened during a Democratic administration, the result would have been the same except that it would have cost the taxpayer twice as much.

  9. Cornfields says:

    Personally, I thought Katrina was a disgrace. I will not defend it by simply (as you do) imagining the poor response of a Democratic administration. Nor do I think rescuing (if only) the sick and the elderly from the hospitals (days later) is “liberal think.” I was hardly impressed with the incompetent response by local Democrats either.

    But none of that is my point. The real question here is one of TRUST. Frankly, I would prefer an effective (large or small) government bureaucracy to help defeat radical Islamic threats to the US. I would like an effective (large or small) government bureaucracy to effectively fight the war in Iraq Each to his own is hardly going to prevent another 9/11 or win in Iraq. I understand that, by necessity, much of these fights will be waged out of sight. So, I (like many Americans) needs to feel that we can trust this administration.

    But what we saw during Katrina was an administration (however good or poor you judge their response), making repeated (and consistently optimistic) statements to the press which were grossly at odds with the facts on the ground. I mean (to give one example) it took them practically a week to discover that thousands of people were trapped at the dome despite the fact that it was all over the news for days. Even if we don’t blame the administration for the fact that all those people were trapped at the dome, we should expect that they KNOW about it and tell the truth about it.

    Rightly or wrongly, for many Americans, I think it was a chance to compare the consistently sunny rhetoric of this administration with our own eyes.

    So (to give one example), when Cheney announced two years ago that the insurgency was on its last legs, it seems for many Americans that they are witnessing Katrina all over.

    You might think the administration’s response was dandy. I will not argue with your personal experience. But most Americans would disagree, and I think that is what we are talking about here: a lost generation of Republicans.

  10. William d'Inger says:

    There isn’t enough space here for me to address all your concerns, Cornfields, so let me give you one example from ground zero.

    I, and all my neighbors, had to gut our houses. Everything was piled out front — furniture, appliances, carpeting, cabinetry, lawn mowers. clothing, sheetrock and even the insulation from inside the walls. It was piled so high that one could not see the houses from the street. We expected government to remove it of course, but life isn’t simple.

    By law, garbage could only be removed from public property. If a garbage man set foot on a homeowner’s lawn, that was trespass. Since there was insufficient space between the sidewalk and the street to hold the debris, the parish council had to change the garbage law.

    By law, the parish council has to hold public meetings which have to be announced in the public records a certain number of days in advance.

    It was estimated that there were 17 years worth of household debris on people’s front lawns. Where do you put it all? The landfills couldn’t possibly hold it, but you can’t just open a landfill willy-nilly. By law, the government has to be concerned about ground water quality, air quality, etc. And where would one get the land in the first place? Take it by eminent domain?

    As a stopgap measure, the government increased the height limit on existing landfills to 60 feet above grade. The NIMBY crowd had a fit and went to court to get an injunction against it.

    The practical effect was delay debris removal for weeks and weeks and weeks.

    Although the media blamed government failure (Bush can rebuild Iraq, but he can’t take out the garbage), I submit to you that government was functioning properly within the legal confines of our democratic system. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    Katrina happened on Bush’s watch, so he has to take the heat for it. That’s the way the political cookie crumbles. Nevertheless, I still submit that government at all levels did as good as any human organization could be reasonably be expected to do under the circumstances. Maybe if we have a dozen or so disasters of equal magnitude in rapid succession, government might be expected to do better.