Friday, October 24, 2014

The Karl Rove Myth

I recently had an encounter with a local conservative activist which should not have been surprising to me, a man who had previously held a city council seat. We were talking about the recent change to the city's garbage collection service from a twice weekly pickup to once weekly, and the new garbage cans that everyone hates. I told him I thought it might be something he could run on for the next city council election, but he did not because he thought he had already lost on the issue. I finally just asked him if he would change it back if conservatives had the kind of power on the city council that he wanted. He said yes, of course, but it was sort of like pulling teeth. It was clear to me he didn't actually believe that would ever happen, regardless of what the current issues were. In fact, the only reason I was meeting with him was to ask him if he was running next year and to offer my help. He said it was fifty-fifty...and also that he was considering moving his family to another location where things were nicer and explained to me all the terrible horrible things about the place he was currently living, the very place where he was considering running. I was watching this man complain about how conservative people wouldn't get off their lazy asses and vote for him and, at the same time, wondering why anyone  would vote for him if this is the way he always talked to people. I had come to the meeting all excited to help him run again, and I left the meeting deflated and unenthusiastic. Something in me wonders if men like him actually enjoy deflating people. What kind of politician enjoys deflating people? Losers. That's what kind. Not losers in the sense of their personality or life accomplishments, but people who are likely to lose political races and political battles. Losers in the literal sense of the term.

Last week the news broke that Iraq actually did have a massive stockpile of chemical weapons, which we knew as early as 2004, and the Bush administration never used that fact to vindicate themselves on one of the reasons for the Iraq War they had used. As a result, Democrats have been hammering Republicans for years, saying, "Bush lied. People died." We also found out that Senator Rick Santorum had tried to get the Bush administration to release the evidence, even tried to release it himself, all to no avail. We hear from him and others that the decision not to release the information was made by Karl Rove. Rove felt that they had already lost the issue, and so the facts didn't really matter. Bush became wildly unpopular as a result of the dragging on of the Iraq War, which may have happened anyway. But the impression that he lied to us about the reasons for the war never went away. Does anyone believe now that Rove's decision was the correct one? Does anyone believe that we would have "lost on the issue" if we had actually tried to win after being proven correct?

This post is a response to an article written by my favorite columnist castigating conservatives for hating on Karl Rove. That article was a response to another article by a conservative castigating Karl Rove. The former article argues that Karl Rove has become a myth bigger than any one man could be, first for progressives and now for conservatives, for opposite reasons. Progressives hated him for winning. Conservatives hate him for losing, and for constantly saying we should support the less conservative candidate. I think conservatives would hate him less if they ever actually heard him adhere to the Buckley Rule, that we should support the most conservative candidate who can win. Has anyone ever actually heard Karl Rove support the more conservative candidate in any race at all? I sure haven't. Has he ever once in his life used his skills to analyze a race and conclude that we could run a more conservative candidate and still win? All we ever hear from him is we have to support the moderate, that we have to be less conservative, etc., etc. I can't believe this is in line even with Buckley's distilled strategy, much less with Buckley himself, a man who intentionally ran a political race he knew he would lose just to shake up the debate.

Williamson's point that people who have never won a political race should shut up is a valid one. I fancy myself something of a strategy gamer, and I have encountered the unbounded enthusiasm of new players who fall in love with a certain strategy. I know what it's like to try and explain to them why their strategy will likely fail. I also know what it's like to figure out which strategy will likely work beforehand, testing it, and succeeding. But let me suggest to the reader that politics is somewhat different than a pure strategy game. I have in fact played one strategy game in particular where politics plays a large role, something which took me years to realize, amazingly enough. I have watched good leaders and bad leaders in that game. I know how difficult it is to motivate people to do something very simple like log on at a certain time for five minutes, or sometimes five hours, something very similar to voting. There are tactics hard-coded within the game, situations where regardless of good intentions or motivation, you will still fail or succeed based on mathematics, but motivating people has virtually nothing to do with tactics. I'm skeptical of someone explaining to me that motivating people to vote is reducible to statistics. There is virtually no relation between parliamentary procedure and law, the only situation where the rules of politics are hard-coded, and politics writ large.

I am the type of person who enjoys math, and have enjoyed math since I was a kid when the vast majority of the other kids hated it. It always makes me a little bit giddy when the math people win. But the older I get, the more I realize that most of the important things in human experience have little to do with math. This is the part of me that hates Karl Rove. And I know that if even an academic genius and math lover like myself has enough of the human element to hate Karl Rove, than I know for certain that the vast majority of the U.S. electorate identifies even less with him. And you know what? Political movements live and die off those things, not the statistics that Rove loves so much. I have been the Karl Rove numbers guy in a team of people. I know my place in that sort of environment, and my place is to keep my mouth shut the vast majority of the time, especially in public. I know that my advice is useful in private conversations with leaders. It is not suitable for spewing all over the internet and TV in vain self promotion, constantly smashing people with cold reality when what they really need is motivation to go out there and do what it takes to change the reality. Karl Rove has stepped outside his bounds and outside his role as a campaign advisor. If he had realized he also needed to change the way he talks and speaks, I would have no problem with that. People can change. In a very real sense, change is what people do. But he hasn't.

If this was my only beef with Karl Rove, than I wouldn't be writing even this blog post that no one will read. I sympathize with him. I want people like him to succeed, because I am a person like him. My real beef with Rove is that he is wrong in another, more fundamental way. He's wrong because his outlook on U.S. politics hasn't changed, while U.S. politics itself has changed dramatically.

Did you know that the Democratic Party had the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for a period of forty years from 1954 to 1994? During that time, Republicans never had the majority in the House and only had the majority in the Senate for six years during Reagan's presidency. That's forty years of failure. Four with a zero behind it. That's two entire generations. Karl Rove grew up in one of those generations. So did the Republican political establishment that he represents. They grew up in a period of near total Democratic dominance and Republican futility. They formed their political tactics and strategy, to say nothing of their more basic beliefs, in a time when any Republican who succeeded politically did so only by compromising their principles. There was no other way for a Republican to succeed. Those establishment Republicans are still pissed at Newt Gingrich for his government shutdown tactic in 1994. They blame that for losing to Clinton in 1996, even though it got us welfare reform, a resounding conservative success, and even though Republicans have held the majority in the House for all but four of the last twenty years since then, permanently ending the forty year Democratic run. These old men with so much power in the Republican Party are afraid. They are scared of being too conservative because they grew up in a period when being conservative meant political death. They have failed to recognize the situation has changed, and changed dramatically for the better. They are losers with a loser's mentality. In their defense, it's not really their fault. They were the ones who were right when everyone else was left. They were the ones who took on a losing cause because it was the right thing to do. They deserve to be recognized for that, and then put out to pasture where they belong, right there with Bob Dole who was of course the real reason Republicans lost in '96. We don't need losers running the party now. We need winners.

The myth of Karl Rove has nothing whatsoever to do with how much money his Crossroads PAC has donated to campaigns. It has everything to do with the argument he has put forth in his own words in articles written for the Wall Street Journal, in other publications, on TV and in public appearances. The Karl Rove Myth is the idea that being conservative is an electoral loser. It's an idea that he got from the political period of Democratic dominance, in which he succeeded brilliantly, that is now over. People will of course claim that the election of Barack Obama is a watershed in American politics, but it's not the sort of watershed that is usually claimed. The election of Barack Obama inspired the Tea Party and a wave of conservative enthusiasm. He awoke the sleeping giant. At the beginning of the progressive revolution in American politics, brought on most notably by Woodrow Wilson's administration, there was a massive conservative backlash that elected Harding and Coolidge in the 1920s. But we all know what happened after that: three generations of progressive dominance. Obama's election is similar to Harding's. It is a momentary period of backlash by a political movement in the throes of death. We are already twenty years into the conservative period. If the past is any indication that means we are already at least one third of the way through, and all we have to show for it is welfare reform because of timid Republicans leaders like Rove. The future is conservative, and we need leaders who are trying to push us forward instead of holding us back. Opportunities for conservative change abound, but not if the Karl Rove Myth remains the dominant paradigm in the Republican Party. Not if we are so convinced of losing that we don't even try to win.

Now that's whack.