Skip to main content

Rove's attack on Hillary Clinton was clumsy, but also shrewd

By Alex Castellanos
updated 6:51 PM EDT, Fri May 16, 2014
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years.
HIDE CAPTION
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alex Castellanos looks at Karl Rove's assault on Hillary Clinton's health and age
  • He says his language probably was reckless, but could succeed as part of a larger strategy
  • But, he argues, it also continues to damage the Republican brand

Editor's note: Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, is the founder of Purple Strategies and NewRepublican.org. You can follow him on Twitter @alexcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Was Karl Rove's assault on Hillary Clinton's brain a political masterstroke that will make her presidential campaign more difficult? Or a ham-fisted attack that will contribute to the persistent unpopularity of the Republican Party?

The answer, to many a Republican's regret, is both. Whatever victory Republicans digest from this blow will leave a bitter taste.

Hillary Clinton hasn't yet been president, though it feels like she is running for reelection. That is part of Mrs. Clinton's problem. The constant division her name invites has been with us now for decades. Who wants to continue those battles? Like Vietnam or Watergate, at times it doesn't matter which side of the Clinton conflict we take. We are exhausted by the relentless requirement that we engage them.

Age and health are always issues in major political races, and fairly so, but they are usually aired gracelessly. I served my apprenticeship in politics working for mad-genius GOP pollster and strategist Arthur Finkelstein.

Alex Castellanos
Alex Castellanos

While he was mapping the campaign for brassy, upstart Al D'Amato, Arthur came up with a unique strategy to do what was thought impossible: defeat in a primary an untouchable Republican icon -- legendary New York Sen. Jacob Javits.

Javits, a liberal Republican, was out of step with Barry Goldwater's GOP but Republican voters had too much respect for the old senator to replace him. A near octogenarian, Javits had slowed a step and was beginning to slur his speech, presenting the initial symptoms of ALS, which would fell him within the decade.

Finkelstein's strategy? Give conservative GOP primary voters permission to say publicly what only a few whispered privately -- and Arthur was none too subtle. Finkelstein released an attack ad that wrinkled the noses of New York's political elite. Its purpose being impropriety, it ended with the memorable line, "And now, at age 76 and in failing health, he wants six more years." New York's left-leaning upper-crust gasped, but Finkelstein didn't stop there.

The inspired part of the strategy was the second step: Arthur had planned for the D'Amato campaign to fire him for the negative assault. That would not only distance D'Amato from the attack and leave his candidate wearing a white hat, it would also generate another delicious round of news coverage. The "fire-Finkelstein" debate kept the story alive for the remaining days before the election. Sometimes, in politics as in chess, a knight sacrifices himself to take the queen. Javits' career came to its end.

Karl Rove is not on the ballot in 2016. At least in the short term, in any brutal exchange between a brass-knuckled political operative and Hillary Clinton, guess who wins and who loses?

Clinton has already lost once, running as the candidate of experience against a younger candidate of hope and change. Political tides often wash in as high as -- if not higher than -- they have before. It could all happen to Hillary again.

My experience is that once America moves forward a generation, it seldom moves backward. It's not Hillary's age that is the issue, but how young or old she would make the country. Rove has opened the door to Clinton's real weakness: Her lack of vision is more of an issue than her years.

Clinton defends Hillary against Rove
Are Karl Rove's attacks hurting the GOP?
Are Karl Rove's attacks hurting the GOP?

That other Clinton
Bill Clinton had no such debility. He was always the candidate of the future. His song was "Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow." His pledge, repeated nearly two dozen times in his acceptance speech at the 1996 Democratic convention, in his campaign against World War II's Bob Dole, was to build "The Bridge to the 21st Century." President Clinton was inspired to enter politics, he admits, as a 16-year-old on a visit to Washington, in a moment captured by cameras, when he shook hands with the New Frontier's President John F. Kennedy, whom he then emulated.

Ronald Reagan was attacked for his age and mental acuity. America learned he was an optimist with a glorious sense of humor and a vision of them that lit the world as a "Shining City on a Hill," so they found him forever young, regardless of his maturity and experience.

Kennedy, Clinton and Reagan were young because they kept us young. Unlike those predecessors, however, Hillary Clinton isn't known for her optimism or inspiring vision.

She is a pragmatist, not a futurist. America has known her for a long time. Even after 20 years, a stay in the White House, a career in the Senate and a tour as secretary of state, we do not know what stars she would follow.

It is not unreasonable to ask where a candidate would go before we trust her to lead us there. It's hard to imagine that only now, after decades in the public eye, Hillary Clinton would suddenly discover her destination.

Unfinished business
Hillary has only one attribute that makes her politically youthful and connects her to our future. It is, however, a powerful one: America has yet to have a female president. The power of that incomplete task should not be understated.

In making the decision to nominate and elect our first black president, America rightly believes it acted as a good and noble nation. It advanced the defining belief that we are a country offering equal opportunity to everyone.

In making that choice, however, America also made another decision: Not to elect our first female president. Women were left at the back of the bus. As I travel the country these days and speak to audiences of varied political persuasions, I am often struck by the quiet but growing movement of women, especially younger women, Democrat and Republican, who believe their time has come. Much of Hillary's support says, "It is our turn."

Is that enough to keep Clinton "forever young", like Reagan? Not completely. Reagan's eternal youth, like Kennedy's, was actually the understanding that he would keep our country "forever young". Without similar vision and optimism, Hillary's crusade remains only a quest for personal achievement. To that purpose, Karl Rove has opened a wound that will bleed and hurt Clinton. Unfortunately, it will also hurt the Republican Party Rove aims to help.

Gingrich: Karl Rove was totally wrong.
Rove responds to Clinton comment backlash
Rove: Clinton 'brain damage'?

GOP has its own problems
Right now the GOP is a cause few are proud to join. We are a dark and purposeless confederation, known for primarily for saying "no" and telling people, not what they can be, but what they should not do. We seem to employ our principles only with only the darkest and most defensive intentions.

This assault on Hillary Clinton will only aggravate that perception of the GOP, and the moment couldn't be worse.

Many young voters have had their hearts broken by President Barack Obama. In return for the dreams, hopes and votes they invested in him, Obama has rewarded them with huge student debt, no jobs, declining prospects, and an intergenerational transfer of wealth from their empty pockets to their gluttonous elders. Those young voters are available to Republicans who would lift their eyes over the horizon and lead them to something better. They are not eager to stand beside Rove holding a bloody ax.

Please don't think me apologetic. I love negative political campaigns and have run more than a few of them. I believe Republicans have an obligation to disqualify a failed, industrial-age political philosophy that is leading our nation to decline. We have responsibility to warn voters about hot stoves and shout an alert not to touch them.

Yet, our ultimate obligation is to cook something and feed a population hungry for leadership. It remains our mission to inspire and take an ever-hopeful people from a great nation to an even better one.

Ultimately, this is a collective failure, belonging to all but a few Republicans. GOP leaders and sages rarely make an effective case that their principles offer the only possible path to a future of promise, progress and prosperity.

When we don't lift those principles before voters, when we don't step up and lead, we are defined only by tactical wedge issues that divide and not big principles that inspire, unite, and attract the next generation.

In this battle, we have dug our hole a little deeper and exposed the GOP's lack of leadership. It is a big price to pay for a party in need of optimism and vision. It is also a steep cost to a country in need of renewal, confidence, and big dreams.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT