Karl Rove's War

By Cottle, Michelle | Newsweek, February 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

Karl Rove's War


Cottle, Michelle, Newsweek


Byline: Michelle Cottle

By picking a fight with conservatives, did the Republican Machiavelli just ruin his career--or save it?

What in the hell was Karl Rove thinking? This has been the question on the minds of many political observers since the Republican super-strategist opened up a nasty new front in the ongoing civil war between his party's purists and its pragmatists.

The storm broke February 6, when Rove, via the front page of The New York Times, debuted his newest venture, the Conservative Victory Project: an aggressive battle plan for the midterms that involves his super PAC, American Crossroads, intervening in the GOP primaries to try to ensure that the strongest, most electable candidates--not necessarily the most ideologically pristine ones--prevail.

The plan itself seems sound. The widespread sense among Republicans is that the party blew an opportunity to retake the Senate last year as a result of several not-ready-for-primetime candidates--Todd "legitimate rape" Akin being the most notable--winning primaries. "We messed up five absolutely winnable races," asserts former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer (pointing to Indiana, Delaware, Nevada, Missouri, and Colorado). Staunch social conservative Ralph Reed, who keeps one foot in the GOP's purist camp and one foot in its pragmatic camp, is also quick to acknowledge the need for better quality control: "It does the pro-family cause no good to have flawed candidates with serious candidate performance issues that end up making our issues look, mistakenly in my view, like they are a vulnerability."

Unsurprisingly, however, the purist wing takes exception to all the finger pointing in its direction. And following the unveiling of Rove's project, it went ballistic. Tea Party types, as well as conservative radio hosts like Mark Levin and Steve Deace, lined up to take their swings at Rove for plotting to marginalize conservatives and, as a seriously miffed Deace told me, "rubbing our noses in it publicly." In The New York fricking Times, no less! "There will be no fixing this," asserted Deace. "The civil war has been brewing in this party" for a couple of years now, he said, and people are operating with "short fuses." "What Karl is providing is a face to our frustration."

As the Karl-versus-conservatives story line took hold, Rove launched a Fox News apology tour, hopping from show to show, explaining to Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Chris Wallace how his plan had been misconstrued, how he had nothing against hard-core conservatives, and how Crossroads had, in fact, sunk millions into Tea Party candidates the last go-round. Soft and pale, sheared of his usual swagger, Rove was the very picture of a man under siege.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, clucked their tongues and marveled at why Rove had chosen to kick the hornet's nest. As some strategists noted (mostly sotto voce), there are things in politics that you sometimes have to do but that you simply do not talk about. Mucking around in primaries is one of those things. Don't announce it, just do it--and for God's sake tread lightly, taking great care to work with local leaders and play nice with everyone. "It's tricky because any time an outside group goes into a state, their actions can boomerang, and by virtue of their targeting the [anti-establishment] candidate, that candidate can prevail," says Fleischer. "So it has to be done with delicacy. It has to be done smart. It has to be done in conjunction with state officials, otherwise it is doomed to fail." By so indelicately trumpeting his plans, Rove seemed to violate this basic precept. With just a bit more tact, political watchers note, he could have avoided this whole nasty fight.

But what if, for Rove, the fight was key to the strategy?

Arguably no Republican had a deeper post-election hole to climb out of than Rove. His personal brand was badly damaged by his triumphal forecasts last cycle, including an embarrassing election night that found him on Fox News disputing the network's decision to call the race for President Obama.

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