Monday, October 30, 2006

Rove Still a Genius?

Will Karl Rove still be a genius next Wednesday? Perhaps. When the campaign began, Rove had a depth strategy for minimizing the Republican losses that could be expected as a result of the failed war in Iraq, Republican scandals, and the general bumbling of the Bush administration. The bottom line was that Rove wanted to defend Republican majorities by making the Bush administration the "lion that roared." Rove had Bush and Cheney on the road promoting the dichotomies of Republican "resolve" vs the "cut and run" Democrats and Bush's "toughness" on interrogation against the willingness of the Democrats to give rights to terrorists. Rove could count on every bit of red meat rhetoric being echoed effectively by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and the rest of the attack media.

Second, the huge Republican money edge would make it possible for Rove to carpet-bomb Democratic candidates with attack ads over the last three weeks of the election. Rove talks a lot about making elections "local." What he means is that he'll use negative advertising to make the elections about their smear campaigns.

Finally, Rove and his allies have built up a get out the vote apparatus that is far superior to anything on the Democratic side. Rove has a comprehensive knowledge of the American political landscape down to the precinct level and he has built up an organizational apparatus that had enormous success in getting out potential Republican voters in 2004.

Rove has already lost the policy dimension of his strategy and might be losing on the negative advertising as well. The problem Rove faced all along as a strategist was that the bad news kept piling up for the Bush administration. September and October have been no different. The Bush administration didn't look very strong when North Korea held their nuclear test. Likewise, the Mark Foley scandal, replaced the "strength and resolve" that Rove wanted to project with an image of sleaziness that was even more powerful than the Abramoff scandal. The situation in Iraq continued to deteriorate as the American military's efforts to stabilize Baghdad bogged down. Right now, there's not much lion left in the Republican Party. Even the attack media has struggled. Limbaugh and Hannity are practically begging Republicans to turn out next Tuesday.

The main question now is the extent to which the right-wing roaring machine is still formidable. Blanketing the airwaves with negative advertising, the Republicans have struggled to take unfavorable issues like the war and the economy out of the Senate campaigns in Virginia and Tennessee. Even where negative advertising has not forced them to focus on defending themselves, it has bullied candidates like Harold Ford and James Webb into devoting their resources to attacking the advertising. In this way, Rove has been successful in making elections local because they've transformed the key Senate contests into referendums on his own advertising.

Even this may not be working. Despite George Allen's attempts to smear Democrat James Webb for passages in his novels, Webb moved ahead in at least three of the polls that were published yesterday. Rove's candidate in Tennessee hasn't established any distance from Harold Ford despite the focus on the racist advertising of the Republicans.

If the Republican ground game doesn't inspire rural and exurban white voters to go to the polls in much larger numbers than predicted, Rove will have failed and the Democrats will win majorities in both the House and the Senate. But does that mean it was a bad strategy. I don't think so. To the contrary, I believe that Rove has been very effective in working with a particularly bad hand. Given the thoroughgoing failures of the Bush administration and the foolishness of Republican candidates like George Allen, Conrad Burns, and Kurt Weldon, there was every reason to expect the Republican right-wing to be dispirited and unfocused. Indeed, it's easy to imagine a lot of Democratic strategists giving up the ghosts. Indeed, many Democrats are still worried about "blowing it" despite their many advantages.

For their part, Rove and people like Ken Mehlman have energetically sought to turn every misstep and scandal into more attacks on the Democrats. In Ken Burns's documentary on the Civil War, the late Shelby Foote emphasized that Robert E. Lee was brilliant on defense as well as offense. In the same way, Karl Rove has been brilliant in defense of the increasingly hopeless Bush administration.

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