Could Karl Rove become the architect of a kinder, gentler politics?
Karl Rove will enter history as the most influential political strategist of the modern presidency. James Carville, Dick Morris, Lee Atwater, etc. -- all were important but none as significant. One has to go back some 60 years to the partnership between Clark Clifford and Harry Truman or further back to Louis Howe with Franklin Roosevelt to find anyone as close and instrumental in helping a candidate win and then exercise power.
But the historical analogy that once seemed to fit even better has now vanished into the mist. Early on, Karl Rove was to Bush what Mark Hanna was to William McKinley -- the power behind the throne of a president who built an enduring Republican majority, one that lasted more than 30 years. Rove and Bush together brought that dream to the White House and for a while they were succeeding -- witness the elections of 2000, 2002 and 2004. But that dream has now gone smash, disappearing into the sands of Iraq.
What will Rove's final legacy be? To be fair to him, the final chapters have not been written. If fortunes turn up for his boss -- as Rove doggedly insists -- his own legacy will brighten, too. But let us hope that with Rove's departure, we may also see an end to some of the ways he and his boss have practiced political leadership. To wit:
- Bush and Rove have tried to govern most of the time by steamrolling their opponents -- often demonizing them -- and winning with just 51 percent of the vote. It doesn't work and it undermines our politics. The next president needs to get back to the tradition that the best way to make big changes in the country is through a bipartisanship that builds super-majorities. That's what the great leaders like FDR and Reagan did.
- Bush and Rove introduced the idea that the way to win the White House as a Republican is to run to the right to gain the GOP nomination and then stay to the right to win the election. They thought the center had disappeared. But their approach deepened the partisan divides and made our politics even more poisonous. Let us hope the nominees in 2008 run a race more to the center, trying to build coalitions that will not only bring victory but make governance possible.
- Finally, Bush and Rove came to be seen as practicing a mean-spirited politics -- a politics that seemed comfortable with smearing opponents. Just ask John and Cindy McCain about their experience in the South Carolina primary in 2000. Bush and Rove were not the first to engage in the politics of personal destruction -- some Democrats of the past have come straight out of the pages of Machiavelli. And no doubt, Bush and Rove believe they, too, have been vilified. They are right. But with the country now facing challenges that are both huge and urgent, could we not find a better way with Rove heading out the door?
Strangely enough, maybe Rove can even help. He has one of the best minds in modern politics, and underneath the veneer, I have often found him to have a decency that gets lost to view in the hurly burly. As he steps back from the fray, he could well become an advocate of a better politics. Remember Lee Atwater's conversion?
-- By David Gergen, Former White House Adviser