Impaired vision

Karl Rove’s animating principle has been to make Republicans a permanent majority party. The recent election results and unpopularity of President Bush and the war in Iraq dim that vision, but these are short-term Republican worries. Rove’s long-term prescription for the health of the GOP called for winning a substantial chunk of the Hispanic vote, but fissures in the party during the recent immigration debate may make this vision unattainable.

Rove’s achievements are many. He and then-Gov. Bush put the Texas Republican Party in the majority. There were, of course, larger forces transforming the formerly Democratic South into a Republican region. But Rove and Bush jump-started this process. When they came into office in 1994, Democrats controlled the legislature and the congressional delegation.
Today, both are solidly in Republican hands.

He understood and helped to create the modern conservative Republican Party. While President George H. W. Bush never seemed quite at home with the Republican base, Rove and George W. Bush are simpatico with conservatives, and Rove spent much of his time in the White House working to keep various conservative groups in the fold.

On a tactical level, Rove was a master organizer. In 2000, Rove was one of the few to see that Bush could win reliably Democratic West Virginia; without West Virginia, Al Gore would be president. Since 2002, Rove has championed “microtargeting.” Worried that Democrats were beating Republicans in the turnout game, Rove’s 72-hour project gathered information on voters to target them at the individual level with customized conservative messages, driving up Republican turnout.

Rove occupied a rare position as both an election architect and a top policy adviser. He played a key role in implementing a legislative blueprint that was duplicated time and again during the first term: Have the more disciplined and reliably conservative House pass what the president proposed, and negotiate only with a few key senators in order to get it through.
Rove’s big vision and role in passing Bush’s agenda explain the timing of his departure. Essentially, there is little more for Rove to do. There are no more congressional or presidential elections for President Bush, nor will the president drive the legislative agenda as he did in the first term. The main task will be to prevent Democrats from undoing what Bush has done (the surge in Iraq, enhanced intelligence-gathering techniques and tax cuts). Surely, Rove might be helpful in holding together Republicans in the Senate or sustaining presidential vetoes, but this is a far cry from his vision of GOP majority status.

After three election wins, the losses in 2006 were substantial. What Sept. 11, 2001, and the initial success in Iraq had given politically, the ebbing support for the war took away in 2006. While Rove’s prognostications were wildly optimistic, his turnout and organizing strategies probably saved a few vulnerable incumbents. In the end, no amount of organizing can withstand a big political wave fueled by an unpopular president and war. Yet as much as these circumstances paint a dire short-term electoral scenario for congressional Republicans, it is Rove’s longer-term strategy of attracting Hispanics to the Republican Party that is in danger. In 1996, Bob Dole received less than a quarter of the Hispanic vote; Bush received over a third in 2000 and about 40 percent in 2004. That number receded in 2006 to 30 percent and will likely remain low in the aftermath of the debate on immigration reform.

One sobering number that Rove knows better than anyone: By 2020, there will likely be over 12 million Hispanic voters, up from 7.5 million in 2004.

Rove is a visionary whose vision may be a mirage.


Fortier is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.