Karl Rove and the Permanent Campaign
Thirteen months before President Bush was reelected, chief strategist Karl Rove summoned political appointees from around the government to the Old Executive Office Building. The subject of the Oct. 1, 2003, meeting was “asset deployment,” and the message was clear: The staging of official announcements, high-visibility trips and declarations of federal grants had to be carefully coordinated with the White House political affairs office to ensure the maximum promotion of Bush’s reelection agenda and the Republicans in Congress who supported him, according to documents and some of those involved in the effort.
Many administrations have sought to maximize their control of the machinery of government for political gain, dispatching Cabinet secretaries bearing government largess to battleground states in the days before elections. The Clinton White House routinely rewarded big donors with stays in the Lincoln Bedroom and private coffees with senior federal officials, and held some political briefings for top Cabinet officials during the 1996 election. But Rove, who announced last week that he is resigning from the White House at the end of August, pursued the goal far more systematically than his predecessors, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Post, enlisting political appointees at every level of government in a permanent campaign that was an integral part of his strategy to establish Republican electoral dominance.
Under Rove’s direction, this highly coordinated effort to leverage the government for political marketing started as soon as Bush took office in 2001 and continued through last year’s congressional elections, when it played out in its most quintessential form in the coastal Connecticut district of Rep. Christopher Shays, an endangered Republican incumbent. Seven times, senior administration officials visited Shays’s district in the six months before the election — once for an announcement as minor as a single $23 government weather alert radio presented to an elementary school. On Election Day, Shays was the only Republican House member in New England to survive the Democratic victory.
“He didn’t do these things half-baked. It was total commitment,” said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), who in 2002 ran the House Republicans’ successful reelection campaign in close coordination with Rove. “We knew history was against us, and he helped coordinate all of the accoutrements of the executive branch to help with the campaign, within the legal limits.”
As I observed yesterday morning, though, this is a classic case of “the real crime is what’s legal.” The Hatch Act was amended in 1993 — under a Democratic president and Congress — in order to allow political appointees to use their offices for political purposes with very modest constraints. The Clinton administration took full advantage of that, pushing beyond the previous bounds of propriety. Karl Rove and company kicked it up a notch.
This is the nature of the permanent campaign. Anything legal — or even on the gray area between legal and not — is fair game because it’s imperative that our team beats their team because we are Good and they are Evil. There are no signs on the horizon that this will change any time soon.