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

Updated 6:51 PM EDT, Fri May 16, 2014

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 You can follow him on Twitter @alexcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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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.

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.