Is Karl Rove Conservative?

karl-rove-courage-consequenceReagan apostles Craig Shirley and Donald Devine take to the WaPo editorial page to argue that Karl Rove is not a conservative.

From William F. Buckley Jr. to Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan, the creators of the modern conservative movement always taught that excessive concentration of power in government leads inevitably to corruption and the diminution of personal freedoms. But while Rove credits these leaders for shaping his early political views — “at the age of thirteen, I was wild for Barry Goldwater,” he writes — he did not pursue their values while in the White House. To the contrary, as the chief political architect of the Bush presidency, Rove was instrumental in directing an administration most notable for its enormous expansion of national government.

Throughout his memoir, Rove is partial to “compassionate conservatism” — the phrase made famous during Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign — and describes the “four big foundations” of the idea as “education reform, the faith-based initiative, a generous middle-class tax cut and Social Security and Medicare reform.”

Consider that list. Bush’s tax cut was, certainly, basic conservatism in action, yet even President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, did as much. And the faith-based initiative mainly allowed religious groups to compete equally with other groups seeking federal grants — commendable, but still merely leveling the playing field for access to government largesse, and an initiative in keeping with the principles of Jimmy Carter.

The truly unique aspects of Bush and Rove’s compassionate conservatism were in the arenas of education and entitlements. The goals of Bush’s No Child Left Behind education initiative were certainly worthy, but its trampling of states’ rights sounded early alarms for traditional conservatives. And Bush’s market-oriented proposals for Social Security reform notwithstanding, the Medicare prescription drug benefit the president signed into law in 2003 has created an unfunded liability of $9.4 trillion over the next 75 years, according to the 2009 report from the Medicare trustees. This is far beyond what the White House estimated would be saved with Social Security reform, and the first new major entitlement since the days of Lyndon Johnson. And we all remember steel tariffs, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, a massive agricultural subsidy bill, and other spending and regulatory moves by the Bush administration that tilted power toward Washington and away from individuals and states.

[…]

Bush was not the first Republican president to claim the conservative mantle yet merrily grow the size of government; Nixon and Gerald Ford did much the same. Rove and Bush are heirs to a brand of Republicanism rooted in a Tory-style, top-down defense of the status quo. It is not modern conservatism, not the brand that today is finding voice in the “tea party” movement, and certainly not the populist conservatism that found electoral success beginning in the late 1970s.

This is absurd on a number of levels.

First and foremost, Rove served as a political strategist, not a spiritual adviser.  His job was to get Bush elected and re-elected.  That entails matching the candidate’s core values and strengths with the extant domestic political culture.  Bush felt genuine empathy for the less-well-off — a function of the noblesse oblige passed down by his family, his own spiritual awakening, and an awareness that he survived the indiscretions of his youth because of his family’s wealth and status — and this paired nicely with a country that wants government to do more.

Second, Shirley and Devine let their love for Reagan cloud their judgment of the president they served.  While Reagan talked the rhetoric of the Conservative Movement as well as anyone who ever lived, he governed by it quite selectively.  Yes, he cut taxes and built up the Defense budget.  But he also massively increased the deficit because he was unwilling to take the political heat of fighting for more than token cuts in domestic spending.  In fairness, the Democrats controlled the House.  But Reagan famously worked well with Speaker Tip O’Neill.  He signed a massive amnesty bill for illegal aliens, a move that would now make him apostate.

Third, “conservative” and “liberal” and the various other labels of our political system are moving targets.  By most lights, the John Kennedy of 1960 would be considered a conservative in 2010.  In many ways, that’s true of the Jimmy Carter of 1976, a Southern businessman and born-again Christian who began what we now think of us the Reagan defense build-up and deregulation of various industries .  They were progressive for their time on a handful of issues but were both more socially and fiscally conservative than most Republican leaders are today. The mood of the country evolves and the center thus moves with it.

Finally, while I find internecine squabbles to define the parameters of political movements interesting and generally helpful, it’s one thing to fight over the message and another to try to weed out the membership rolls.  There are plenty of reasons that Republicans and conservatives might want to be leery of association with Rove.  His ideological impurity, however, is not among them.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. superdestroyer says:

    Let’s see.

    Tax cuts while expanding the government and increasing spending was not conservative. Growing the size and scope of the federal government was not conservative. Pandering to Hispanics with government funds and proposing to selling citizenship for a few dollar was not conservative. Protectionist trade policies were not conservative. Land wars in Asian and nation building are not or were ever conservative.

    Karl Rove believe that every policy was detached from every other policy. Thus, the government could maintain open borders for illegal immigrants while forcing Americans to take their shoes off at the airport and be treated like criminals. Karl Rove’s legacy is the destruction of the Republican Party and turning America into a one party state where the left has total control. Maybe Rove would have worked out if Bush and his advisers had any leadership ability or any level of competence. However, putting a lazy idiot like GW Bush in the White House and letting Rove advise him on policy was a horrible combination.

  2. Herb says:

    It’s a bit ironic how McClatchy’s did an article called “Some right-wingers ignore facts as they rewrite U.S. history” on April 1st…

    And then on April 4th, we have the vice chairman of the American Conservative Union co-authoring an op-ed in the Washington Post about how Karl Rove wasn’t really a conservative.

    Ignoring facts while rewriting history? Check and check.

  3. Herb says:

    And it seems the rewriting of history has some traction.

    Karl Rove’s legacy is the destruction of the Republican Party and turning America into a one party state where the left has total control.

    If that’s so, it’s a legacy that I believe Karl Rove would be absolutely horrified by.

  4. john personna says:

    1) declare America needs conservative values
    2) champion some crew conservatives
    3) watch them mess up
    4) support them as long as you can
    5) declare they weren’t conservatives after all
    6) go to 1

  5. Eric Florack says:

    I’ve been saying since the Reagan administration that Bush… (Applies equally to either one) was never a conservative, and was in fact at best a centrist. Remember, gang… Bush SR. was brought into the Reagan administration as a counterbalance against Reagan’s conservatism. Even on that basis alone, I was a little concerned with trying to bolt the mantle of Reaganism to Bush Sr… and more than a little disquieted about doing that with W.

    And yes, you’re correct, James, in that Rove was a strategist not a spiritual adviser. That said, there is such a thing as your strategist sharing your values. It may or may not be precisely true, but the observation seems to be that one needs to share your values, to be a trusted adviser. Can anyone imagine Rove advising the Obama administration, for example? Or, James Carville, advising any Republican administration? Obviously, the answer is no to both.

    As to the question of Rove’s conservatism, that seems to me a sliding scale. To put that in context, I supported Bush (both cases) because he was decidedly more conservative than his opponent. (Interestingly, that comment would include the primaries… Bush was in both cases more conservative than the remainder of the republican field. ) That support, however, does not labeled those I supported full fledged conservatives. Far from it.

    As another example, I supported the candidacy of McCain, once the primary was through , because even as bad as he was, and is,(He came down to the left of Centrist Bush in a number of issues) he was still far and away a better candidate then Obama.

    (Hmmm There’s a point that I think the majority of the country would agree with, based on some of the polling data i’m seeing this morning, in James’ more recent post)

  6. john personna says:

    I think you misread that poll, Eric. While the constituents can be presented as “like” the mainstream, the actual numbers did not come close to a majority:

    The Winston Group conducted three national telephone surveys of 1,000 registered voters between December and February. Of those polled, 17 percent — more than 500 people — said they were “part of the Tea Party movement.”

    17%

  7. Eric Florack says:

    I think you misread that poll, Eric. While the constituents can be presented as “like” the mainstream, the actual numbers did not come close to a majority:

    Sorry, no.
    Tea Party 48, Obama 44.

    The trends are even more decisive… with Obama continues to plummet and the Tea Party continues to rise. Any questions?

  8. Highlander says:

    I’ve been heavily involved in electoral politics for 45 years. I had my first paying job in 1962. I’ve worked for both parties from Presidential elections down to literally dog catcher.

    Based on my 45 years in the game,I can’t tell you how conservatively pure Mr Rove is.(I suspect not very, I even doubt he has a political soul)

    But I can tell you he is a complete and total Whore(Like Georgie Bush and Darth Vader Cheney). Who just happens to be working the right side of the street.

  9. john personna says:

    Rassmussen asked a stupid question:

    On major issues, 48% of voters say that the average Tea Party member is closer to their views than President Barack Obama. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 44% hold the opposite view and believe the president’s views are closer to their own.

    First of all, an “unknown quantity” always wins in that comparison. People find it easier to find something the disagree with on the known (Obama) but less for the diffuse and contradictory newcomer (Tea Party).

    Second, the Tea Party is selling a magic pony. Cut taxes and balance the budget? Great, always good as a slogan. It bogs down when you have to propose, you know, and actual budget.

    Third, I’d image that a lot of people are like me, and agree with the Tea Party on some things, and Obama on others. Who am I closer to? I have no idea.

  10. Dantheman says:

    bithead,

    “(Interestingly, that comment would include the primaries… Bush was in both cases more conservative than the remainder of the republican field. )”

    You must have a very interesting definition of conservative, if Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson and Paul Laxalt (for Bush the Elder) and Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Orrin Hatch (for Bush the Younger) are less conservative than the Bushes.

  11. Eric Florack says:

    You must have a very interesting definition of conservative, if Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson and Paul Laxalt (for Bush the Elder) and Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Orrin Hatch (for Bush the Younger) are less conservative than the Bushes.

    I suppose that depends on how you measure such things. I tend to look at such things in terms of the total package.

    As an example, since you brought up the names, I would consider Steve Forbes to be an excellent fiscal conservative. However, his social views , not so much. On the other hand, clearly, Pat Robertson is a social conservative, but in terms of fiscal policy , not so much. The occasional oddball spout from him didn’t help either.

    At the time(s), Bush, while certainly lacking in some areas of conservatism, was the best balance among them.

  12. Grewgills says:

    A couple of interesting bits from the Shirley and Devine piece,

    The party’s problems are complicated by its good manners; Republicans do not wish to upbraid Bush and Rove for leading the GOP and conservatism astray. People such as Glenn Beck and Mark Levin who have even mildly criticized the spending and excesses wrought by Republicans have been churlishly attacked by defenders of the era.

    (Colbert couldn’t write better)
    and
    ‘American conservatism evolved into a well-defined political movement that is anti-status quo’ because your political movement’s name should always be ironic.

  13. anjin-san says:

    The trends are even more decisive… with Obama continues to plummet and the Tea Party continues to rise. Any questions?

    Yes. How can you cite Rasmussen and expect anyone to take you seriously?

    Unless of course, you already know that no one takes you seriously…

  14. An Interested Party says:

    While some will debate how conservative Karl Rove is, something that does seem to be clear is that he is one of the best gifts that the Democrats have ever received…

  15. tom p says:

    Don’t have time to read all the comments so let me add this:

    This is absurd on a number of levels.

    Yes, it is absurd that Karl Rove calls himself a conservative… on a # of levels.

    And James, I don’t buy….

    First and foremost, Rove served as a political strategist, not a spiritual adviser. His job was to get Bush elected and re-elected.

    as an excuse. Do you want to know how many times I cursed various Dems as they waffled over HCR? I was screaming, “What… You got elected so you could get re-elected???????????? I thought you got elected so you could actually DO something.”

    Apparently Karl disagrees…

    And that is OK with you.

    James, you and I rarely agree on many things, but I always thought we agreed that we “the people” elected these numb skulls to actually do something… Something more than get re-elected.

    Calling it Karl Rove’s “job” doesn’t make it any better. KInd of like saying the latest Vatican apologist is “pure” as he defends the church against credible evidence of centuries worth of pedophilia.

    The question is, what does Karl stand for?

    My vote is: Not a goddamn thing if it will get his man elected.

  16. anjin-san says:

    Always interesting reading Bits comments about Bush & McCain.

    Remember that kid in high school who spent 3 years kissing the quarterback’s ass? Then when the quarterback blew the big game your senior year the same kid said he always knew the quarterback sucked?

    That kid was bithead.

  17. Eric says:

    Remember that kid in high school who spent 3 years kissing the quarterback’s ass? Then when the quarterback blew the big game your senior year the same kid said he always knew the quarterback sucked?

    That kid was bithead.

    LOL! Anjin, you’re characterizations of bitsy never disappoint!