The oracle’s debacle
Before election night 2000, when he was riding high as “Bush’s brain,” Karl Rove made Olympian pronouncements about a dawning realignment of the electorate and an enduring age of Republican dominance, masterminded by — who else? — Karl Rove.
On election night 2012, when he was brought low by Mitt Romney’s defeat and the party’s miserable showing in Senate races, he went into denial. It was something to see, something that really will endure, that half-hour or so on Fox News, when he insisted on an alternate reality to the one described by NBC and CBS and even his own Fox colleagues, who were calling the election, correctly, for President Barack Obama. Rove would have none of it, and no wonder. It didn’t just contradict the statements he’d been making for months as a gabby media pundit. It undercut the pose he’d been striking for more than a decade as a lofty political prophet.
In his pout and his pique there were lessons. One is that money, which the political groups that he directs spent oodles and oodles of, doesn’t trump message or spackle over the cracks in a candidate or candidacy. Another is that reality won’t be denied, whether the issue is climate change, which a ludicrous percentage of Republicans at least pretend not to accept, or the country’s diversity, which a self-defeating percentage of them simply ignore.
And yet another is that prophets are people too, blinded by their own self-interest, swayed by their own self-promotion, neither omniscient nor omnipotent. In a political culture that treats its consultants as demigods, this is too often forgotten, by the consultants themselves most of all, and Rove just gave all of us a mesmerizing reminder of that. The oracle suffered a debacle.
He’d begun 2012 as a designated kingmaker, thanks to the successful candidacies he championed in 2010 and the tens of millions of dollars that were pouring into his “super PAC,” American Crossroads, and its affiliate, Crossroads GPS, and that were ready to gush out.
And gush they did. Rove’s groups lavished some $300 million on Republican races, including the presidential campaign, into which they plunked an estimated $127 million on ads in support of Romney. They plunked more than $11 million into the Senate race in Virginia, which Republicans lost, and anywhere from $1 million to $7 million into another nine Senate campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In only one of those races, in Nevada, did the Republican candidate prevail.
This was not lost on Rove’s fellow conservatives. In a statement after the election, the right-wing advocate Richard Viguerie said that in any sane world, Rove “would never be hired to run or consult on a national campaign again.”
Donald Trump, his Twitter finger itchy and his words ever measured, tweeted: “Congrats to (AT)KarlRove on blowing $400 million this cycle. Every race (AT)CrossroadsGPS ran ads in, the Republicans lost. What a waste of money.”
This cycle illustrated both the limits and the perfidy of money. The sums spent by Crossroads and other groups on negative ads against Sherrod Brown in Ohio, an eminently beatable Democrat running for re-election to the Senate, didn’t infuse his challenger, Josh Mandel, 35, with the maturity and eloquence he badly needed. Brown coasted to victory.
And megadonors and super PACs arguably did Romney more harm than good. It was money from Sheldon Adelson, Newt Gingrich’s backer, that financed some of the most vicious attacks on Romney’s Bain Capital career and laid the groundwork for Democrats’ successful caricature of him as a callous plutocrat. And by keeping Romney’s primary challengers in the game, Adelson and his ilk forced Romney ever further to the right, which would haunt him plenty in the general election.
If Rove had a firm grip on how all of this was playing out, he didn’t fully cop to it. But then he’s a maestro of the overconfident, in-your-face show. He humbly titled his 2010 memoir “Courage and Consequence” and, on his website, lets it be known that the tour for it took him to “110 cities in 90 days.”
I still can’t get over a telephone interview he gave Joe Hagan for an article in New York magazine last year. Fresh off his second divorce, he’s zooming down a Texas road in a car with his younger girlfriend, “a lobbyist rumored to have been Rove’s mistress before his divorce,” Hagan writes. Hagan can hear her “squeals of laughter,” along with Rove’s gloating to her: “Goddangit, baby, we’re making good time!”
“It was totally cavalier,” Hagan told me last week, when I asked him if the timing of the call was accidental and her presence grudgingly revealed. No and no. “I was struck by how arrogant and freewheeling he was in that moment,” Hagan said.
Of course arrogance, or at least self-assurance, is a consultant’s stock in trade. That’s what we buy when we buy advice: not just the content of it but the authority, even the grandiloquence, with which it’s delivered. We exchange the anxiety of autonomy for the comfort of following orders. And Rove gives great orders, rife with arcane historical references and reams of data.
He’s smart and has on many occasions shown a keen understanding of Republicans’ vulnerabilities. The compassion in George W. Bush’s conservatism — the oratorical emphasis on education, the moderate stance on immigration — was a Rove-blessed attempt to keep the party from seeming as harsh as it does now. Rove has warned repeatedly that it mustn’t estrange Latino voters. And he was among the first and loudest Republican leaders to lament the damage that Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin and Todd Akin were doing to the party’s brand.
But he either didn’t or couldn’t keep them away in the first place, and as the 2012 campaign progressed, he seemed to get lost in the exaggerated, delusional spin of it all. This culminated in his attempt on election night to refute the Ohio returns and the projection of an Obama victory, prompting the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly to ask him if his contrary calculations were just “math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better.”
Two days later, back on Fox News, Rove was still spinning, still in denial. He claimed that Obama won by “suppressing the vote,” but by voter suppression he meant negative ads about Bain. The same kind, mind you, that Adelson once helped circulate.
Rove’s awful election night proved that you can’t buy momentum or create it simply by decreeing it, and that there’s a boundary to what bluster accomplishes. The road he zoomed down in 2012 was toward a potentially diminished place in his party, and Goddangit, baby, he was making good time indeed.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.