Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
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There was very little about domestic policy that Karl would not have had a voice on, would not have had an opinion on, and probably had influence on.

... Let's go back to Election Day 2000 -- hotly contested, obviously much closer than a lot of people thought. [Chief campaign strategist] Matthew [Dowd] tells me that the next day, Rove sends him off to presidential libraries and tells him to get ready for the re-election campaign, to go study other re-election campaigns and learn everything he can about it. What did they learn from 2000?

... It does not surprise me that they started early. One of the hallmarks of the Bush operation is that they think in stages, and they think long term. They are a team that does a lot of planning and thinking about how something may play out, and they want to be prepared for it.

And the other thing we know about anything that Karl Rove's involved in is that he's a historian. He's a historian of American history and politics, and so Karl always wants to know what happened under similar circumstances before. What happened during the '80 campaign or the '76 campaign, or after 2001? What happened after Pearl Harbor? He's always looking for historical analogies to see how individuals acted, to see how presidents acted, to see how public opinion moved, to see what forces shaped things. So it's not surprising to me to think that they began very, very early.

After the 2000 campaign, The [Washington] Post did this long project that resulted in a book called Deadlock. And my piece of that was to do a lot of the debriefing of the Bush team, which included an interview with then-President-elect Bush. It was about 10 days before the inaugural, so it was in early [2001], and it was on a plane ride back to Texas. ... And so we sat down in his plane and talked, and I said to him, "Just tell me what it was like when Karl brought you those exit poll results on Election Day 2000."

And President Bush is not an easy interview, particularly when you're talking to him about policy stuff, things where he wants to be either guarded or cagey or thinks you're out to trip him up. But he is such a political animal that when you get him on politics and on something that was this personal to him, he opened up in a way that I had not seen him open up in an interview. And he began to talk about that day and his reaction to those exit polls in a way that told me that they were quite surprised by what had happened, and that they weren't going to let that happen again if they possibly could.

Balz is a reporter with The Washington Post and the author of Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival. In this interview he discusses the tactics Karl Rove used to build a Republican majority first in Texas, and then nationwide. "One of the things about Karl Rove is, Karl's not a believer in the big-bang theory of realignment," Balz tells FRONTLINE. "Karl's a believer in incremental politics…you keep accumulating territory from your opponent. … You don't go out and corral it all in one election. You find the weak points, and you go get a little bit of it, and then you solidify that, and you go get a little bit more." Balz also explains how Bush and Rove are trying to use this momentum as a mandate to pass key Republican policies, like Social Security reform. This is an edited transcript drawn from two interviews conducted on Jan. 6 and Feb. 3, 2005.

He said one of the things that he realized that day when Karl gave him those first exit polls in 2000 was, "I knew we had a good operation." He said: "I knew we had a lot of enthusiasm around the country. I had been out. I could feel it in the crowds. I could tell it from what I was hearing from our volunteers, from our elected officials around the country. I knew we had a good organization in a lot of states." He said, "What I realized when I saw those exit polls, heard about them, was that Vice President Gore also had a very good organization, and in some states may have had better organization than we had."

And I think to him this was a big revelation and a surprising revelation, because they had done a lot of work on their own ground war in 2000 to overcome what had been historically a Republican deficit. One of the things we know is that immediately after the 2000 election, and once they all got settled in Washington, one of the first things they set out to do was to learn the lessons of what had happened in 2000, why their votes on Election Day seemed to underperform their own expectations, some of their final polls, and to go about and figure out how to correct it. So that's one track that's being set off early in 2001. [It's] what became known then as the 72-Hour project for the get-out-the-vote operation. ...

When they get rolling, talking about the 72-Hour project, obviously they're focused on the 2002 midterm. Are you getting a sense of what they actually intend to do in purely political terms, [any] new or revolutionary ideas?

... One of the hardest things in political reporting is to measure the effectiveness of a ground operation before there's an actual election. We knew they were concerned about it. We knew that they felt that the Democrats had certain built-in advantages, particularly the force of organized labor as a complement to what the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign could do. And we know they were looking for ways to do it, but I did not understand fully until after the 2000 election.

I wrote a little bit about this before 2002. I knew they had done experiments, and they felt that they had come up with some things. They did one interesting experiment. I think it was in South Carolina. They decided, "OK, what's more effective, paid phone banks or your neighbors calling you?" And so they literally did a test where they found a group of either uncommitted or leaning voters, two groups of them, equal size. They gave one to a professional phone bank, and they gave another to a group of Republican volunteers from the state, who spoke in the accent, the vernacular, knew how to talk to people from the state. And they found that in fact the paid phone bank did not produce as high a turnout among that target group as the volunteers did.

... What we found was that they had done a number of these, and out of that you aggregate it up, and you find that they have figured out a way to enlarge the electorate somewhat. It doesn't have to be 20 percent. It never is in politics. One of the things about Karl Rove is, Karl's not a believer in the big-bang theory of realignment. Karl's a believer in incremental politics.

John Weaver, who's been a competitor over the years, and more recently an ally, said that of the things Karl does is, it's kind of like the old Woody Hayes Ohio State football teams, which is "three yards and a cloud of dust": You keep accumulating territory from your opponent, and you get it bit by bit. You don't go out and corral it all in one election. You find the weak points, and you go get a little bit of it, and then you solidify that, and you go get it a little bit more.

And so the 72-Hour project was designed to get a piece here and a piece there. How do we get social conservatives more significantly than we've been able to get them? How do we get people who have just moved into an area who ought to be our voters, but who may be irregular voters? How do we get Hispanics? How do we get Roman Catholics? And there are pieces for all of that.

And in 2002, we saw they were able to significantly enhance their vote totals in Florida. ... Jeb Bush's numbers went up tremendously from what he had gotten in [the Florida gubernatorial race in] 1998. If you look at North Carolina, I think Erskine Bowles, in that [senatorial] race against Elizabeth Dole, may have gotten about the same number of votes that John Edwards had gotten when he won in 1998, but Elizabeth Dole got several hundred thousand votes more. And in Georgia, which was their kind of celebrated case, the swell in the turnout was so great that it knocked off Roy Barnes, who was really not on anybody's radar screen as an endangered incumbent governor. It looked like he was cruising toward a re-election and probably headed toward national aspirations in the Democratic Party, and instead he wakes up in 2002, and he's gone politically.

So that project gave us the first hint. We knew they planned; we knew they worked. But it told us that they knew how to actually put it into practice and that in 2004, they would have had a two-year running start on whatever the Democrats were able to do.

As a veteran political reporter, were you surprised by the way that Rove and Bush came in, set up operations in the White House, placing Rove where he placed Rove in the organizational chart?

A little bit, just because Karl had never played that kind of role in any prominent way before, and had certainly not done it when Bush was governor of Texas. But I think what they may have learned [is] that proximity to the Oval Office is very crucial, and I think Karl Rove probably understands that to be simply a political adviser outside the White House limits your ability to actually have real influence.

The other thing I think is important to remember is that [theirs is] a relationship that goes back a long way, a personal relationship, I guess to Thanksgiving 1973, when they first meet. Those two people have been through a lot together, and by the time they get Bush elected president of the United States, they've accomplished something really significant. My guess is that each one wanted to be as close to the other as they could, and that that meant Karl being in the White House.

But I also think that it underscored something that is also important about Karl Rove, and that is that Karl is obviously first and foremost a political adviser, but Karl is not somebody who does politics without thinking about or having a real passionate interest in policy. As I've thought about the number of times I've talked to Karl over the years, a lot of it is just pure nuts-and-bolts, political stuff. Data streams out of him like a human computer. But very often, it is philosophical argument. It is the intersection of policy with politics. It is fitting policies and policy ideas into a political context in order to achieve the political goals that Karl's always had in mind, which is to turn the Republican Party into a majority party in this country. And so if you are simply a political adviser or a campaign strategist, it limits your ability to have a voice in things that are obviously crucial to the performance of a presidency, and therefore the ultimate political success of a president or a White House. ...

And that intersection of politics and policy that he stands astride, give me a sense of how in the first term of this administration it was organized. Who has unfettered access to the president, to the Oval Office? How does policy flow? How much of it moves through Rove? Is it only domestic [policy] that moves through Rove?

I wish I could really help you on it. It's a little bit of an oblique area in my mind. There were a handful of people who I think had, if you want to call it unfettered access, unfettered access. I don't think anybody really has unfettered access, outside of probably the chief of staff [Andy Card]. Even Karl Rove or Karen Hughes recognized that once Bush is president, he's Mr. President, and there's some distance that's created there. But certainly Karl Rove and Karen Hughes had freer access than most other people in the White House. Andy Card obviously did. Condoleezza Rice obviously did. Vice President Cheney obviously did, and that's a relationship that historians will love to be able to figure out, and I hope they do.

But in terms of the domestic policy side of it, Karl was not the domestic policy adviser by any means. But I remember having a conversation with Secretary [of Health and Human Services Tommy] Thompson in the early days of the administration, ... sometime in 2001. And I asked him a routine question -- "Who do you deal with at the White House?" -- trying to get a sense of how the domestic policy operation worked, because Thompson is a real policy maven. And he said, "Well, I deal most with Karl Rove." [That] was eye-opening to me. ...

But the other thing that we know, certainly from the 2000 campaign and forward, was that there was a very interesting working relationship between Rove on the one hand and Josh Bolten on the other. Josh was the policy director of the presidential campaign in 2000, and went on to become White House deputy chief of staff, now the Office of Management and Budget. They developed a working relationship in which they would almost jointly think through, what are the policies that we want to push? And Karl would have a political understanding of why certain issues were either good or not good to deal with. Josh would have the responsibility of figuring out what the policy really ought to be. It was Josh's shop that did that, and they did a lot of very strong policy work. That policy operation in 2001 on the domestic side was better than you see in most presidential campaigns.

And then it was up to Karl to decide: "OK, when do we roll it out, and where do we roll it out for maximum political impact? What month, what state, what city? How do we do it?" That carried over into the White House. In the campaign, they had a calendar on Josh Bolten's wall that had at least a couple of months' stuff on it, and it would say, "Social Security rollout in Rancho Cucamonga," or "Defense speech, South Carolina," from the biggest speeches to even the smaller ones. And they would have it laid out over a 30-day or a 60-day period looking forward.

Josh had a similar thing in his office in the White House, much more elaborate, of course, in the White House. It was a beautiful wooden box with doors so that nobody could stumble across it and see the secret information. But this was the intersection of the politics and the policy through Josh Bolten and Karl Rove. So you wouldn't say that Karl was the domestic policy czar, but there was very little about domestic policy that Karl would not have had a voice on, would not have had an opinion on, and probably had influence on.

I've heard that part of how they decided where the speech would happen or when they'd time the release of something was they'd comb through the history books, find an important date -- "That's an important historical moment in Social Security history or whatever; let's make the speech there, at the labor hall at the so-and-so." All true?

I think that is true, yeah. When Rove created the office of "strategery" in the White House, the Office of Strategic Initiatives, that was a new entity in the White House. Nobody had ever done that before. And that was an effort to bring that sense of forward-planning and historical analysis into the center of White House operations. In a sense, it's kind of a no-brainer: All White Houses do this. But I think no White House has done it so systematically as they've done it in the Bush White House, and I think that was Rove's idea to put it in there.

Why?

Well, for one, Karl Rove loves information. He loves to be inundated by information, and the more information he can get, the more comfortable he feels about the decisions they're making. Second, because he is a student of history, he's just fascinated by history. But he's also fascinated by polling data, and he's fascinated by voter registration data and by precinct data and everything else imaginable, and by articles that an influential, conservative columnist or academic has written. And in one way or another, they try to sort of infuse that into the daily life and the DNA of the White House. So their establishment of that gave them an extra dimension to the normal domestic or economic policymaking apparatus that you would normally have, which goes through the traditional, rigorous analysis of what the policy ought to be. It brings a layer that a lot of White Houses haven't always had so systematically.

You mentioned earlier about this marvelous relationship between these two guys that begins on Thanksgiving 1973. Tell me the story.

As I remember, ... Bush's father was chairman [of the Republican National Committee]. Karl was [a] College Republican leader at the time [and was] working actually for Bush's father in another capacity. [George W.] Bush is coming in to get the car keys, and Rove meets him for the first time. And I think Bush must have been wearing something like a bomber jacket or something like that. And as the story was told, Rove was kind of taken by what he described as the charisma of George W. Bush. I don't know whether that's the word he would have used, but clearly there was some bond that was created, and Rove was impressed with him, and out of that developed a relationship.

It's clear that they continued to share an interest both in Texas politics, in Bush's father's politics, and a friendship after that. And as Karl is becoming the leading political consultant in Texas, Bush is watching his father go through the trials and tribulations of the vice presidency, and then the successful run for president, and then is figuring out what to do with his own life politically. And at that point, their missions become fused. I suspect each in his own way sees the other as a principal agent in achieving the ultimate goals that each of them are after.

What do they each bring to the partnership?

Well, start with the president. He brings a very good name. He brings a big brand in Texas, one of the best brands you can have, particularly if you're a Republican. He brings ambition. He brings, I would say, in Rove's eyes, a freshness to a Republican Party and a different approach to Republican politics than the senior Bush had. And he is the guy who can finally consolidate what had been an almost two-decade-long, slow, steady march of Texas from a Democratic state to Republican dominance.

In Rove, Bush can see somebody who has all of the data, all of the understanding, all of the historical sense of why Texas is on the brink of this realignment, a knowledge of how to run political campaigns in Texas, and a sense of loyalty to him, which for the Bush family is always numero uno in their estimation of the kind of people they want around them.

In this period, through the governorship and heading for the presidency, they develop a number of issues that they use even today: tort reform, those kind of things. What do you know about Rove and tort reform?

Karl had been involved in judicial races in the South. He had obviously warred with the trial lawyers in Alabama, Mississippi particularly. Texas trial lawyers are a very powerful operation. ... If there is any way to diminish them, it is to cut off their funding supply. Tort reform accomplishes that. It plays to other elements of the Republican base as well, so in some ways, it's an important part of any multi-policy strategy that he lays out.

I found this the other day, which is an analysis Karl did after the '86 gubernatorial election campaign, which Bill Clements won. ... Karl's involved in the campaign and does an analysis after the campaign. If you read this now, you look at it and say it is the blueprint that he used in 1994 to help elect George W. Bush, in terms of the sense of incrementalism of the change that was going on in Texas. It was tilting, but with a Republican governor, you could push it faster. He outlines the kinds of things, the practical nuts-and-bolts steps you would do, from pushing Democrats, local elected officials to switch parties; creating Republican organizations in areas that haven't had them, Republican women's groups, Republican men's groups, in areas that are beginning to emerge as possible Republican territories; using the education issue to broaden the base of the Republican Party; and he even uses the word in this report, done [in] December 1986, about education that it would allow the Republicans to look "compassionate."

So much of what we saw in '94 was not created just for George W. Bush. It grew out of what Karl Rove had been doing all through the '80s in Texas, not simply to get a governor elected, but to try to drive the Republican realignment down ballot, through other statewide offices, and also throughout the state. The rural strategy is in there. We think now about all this effort that has gone into the Republicans in rural areas, in 2000 and particularly 2004, how they've played those rural areas. Winning over the rural areas in Texas was elemental to the realignment of Texas politics. It took a very long time in Texas, but there was a great amount of effort, and Rove always focused on trying to realign Republican Texas in the rural areas.

The second is in fast-growing areas. We've talked in this campaign about exurban communities, exurban suburbs. And here he talks about fast-growing areas as emerging Republican areas. In the late '70s, the Republican Party in Texas was based essentially in Houston and Dallas, in two big cities, two big urban counties. What he realized was they were peaking in terms of their ability to win elections in Texas by relying on those big urban counties, that they had to realign the rural areas, and that they had to get the suburban and exurban fast-growing counties not simply to split tickets, but to become Republicans.

So all through the '80s, Karl Rove was thinking through how this works in Texas. He applies it in the 1994 gubernatorial campaign and finally has a candidate who not only in personal terms has the campaign skills to pull it off, but also has a commitment to party building. ... Rove understood all that, and that's why the '94 race was so crucial.

If you had talked to Matthew Dowd in 1994, when Matthew Dowd was still working for the Democrats, before he had joined up with the Bush team, he would say that the 1994 campaign was the tipping point in Texas politics. Until then, it was not at all impossible for Democrats to begin to win statewide races in a lot of areas. After '94, he would say it became progressively more difficult because of what they accomplished in '94, and because of Bush's and Rove's commitment to keep pushing it forward. ...

How much of this is what we all call metrics now, just the mechanics of identifying and turning out votes, and how much of it was issues, policy?

It's both, and that's the interesting thing about the way they've gone about it. I don't think they would say it's one or the other, just as they would have said during the 2004 campaign, "It's not the base or swing voters; it's both." There may be a different relationship between the size of the base and the shrinking size of the swing vote, but you ignore one or the other at your peril. You've got to think about both. And in that sense, they've always thought a great deal about the mechanics of politics. But all good campaigns do that. All smart politicians do that.

They've also thought about the issue structure. I remember a conversation I had with Karl Rove in June of 1999, in which we talked about the divisions within the Republican Party. "Is the Republican Party a divided party?" I said. And he said, "Yes, it is a divided party." And he said it's divided into three groups, or five groups: the economic, social and mainstream conservatives, or add in libertarians and pro-lifers, how many ways you slice it.

"But," he said, "it's not as though these groups are at one another's throats. They have different interests, and they have different priorities." This was just a few weeks before Bush made his first formal trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate, and what he said was, "A pro-life Republican has abortion as the single issue." And at that time he said, "Those voters may well go for [conservative commentator] Alan Keyes or [former New Hampshire Sen.] Bob Smith," who was briefly in the race, and very strong anti-abortion candidate. He said, "There are social conservatives." And he said, "For them, abortion is very important, but there are other issues that are important as well." And he said, "Economic conservatives have their own set of issues. Mainstream conservatives have their set of issues, but for them, some of the social issues are not unimportant." And he said, "What we have to do is find ways to talk about issues that play to all of these groups. We don't necessarily have to take every position of every one of these groups, but we have to provide the issues that do it."

And if you look at the way they ran that 2000 campaign, it was always predicated on the idea that if you could keep cohesion on the conservative side of the party, the dominant part of the party, without necessarily tipping too far to the right, that you could do it. And that involved the set of issues. So on abortion, he was always strongly pro-life. He never yielded on that issue. There were some people, I think, who thought he might try to moderate on abortion. He never really did. He didn't make it the centerpiece of his campaign, but anytime he gave a signal on abortion, anybody who was pro-life would come away feeling, "He's on my side."

But they felt that the compassionate conservative notion provided an umbrella that let them not only speak to the base, but to speak to others who might be swing voters, others who might be a little more moderate in the party. So education was very important on that. The education issue was for them the key to unlocking a lot of the compassionate conservatives, and also the faith-based initiative, which they talked about a lot. And on economics, he came out early in that campaign with a very big tax cut proposal, believing that Steve Forbes, with all his money, might be a serious opponent. So issues always fit in, but it was always a sense of those issues as a way of stitching together the strongest Republican base you could have and build out from there. ...

Many people in blue states are trying to figure out why so much of the country went red. What was going on, and how did we miss it, or did we miss it?

Well, we missed it because we only look at winners. Rove himself has said this: History is written by the winners. And so, [for example,] you look at the '64 campaign, and you say, "This was a crushing defeat for the most conservative candidate the Republicans had put up in memory, and therefore it was the end of the conservative movement." And in fact, what we did not think about at that point -- and should have, because it was obvious, and Lyndon Johnson understood it the day he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 -- was that the South was about to undergo a historic political realignment over race, and that that was a more powerful force than the single defeat of a conservative candidate in a presidential landslide. …

What we focused on was the beginning of the end of the New Deal. But it looked like it was the strengthening of liberal America in the mid-60s. But that was a tumultuous decade. Civil rights and Vietnam tore the country apart, and anytime you have that kind of social change in America, you're likely to have political change out of it. And what we've seen since then is that with that realignment in the South, there has been a slow but steady movement in the country politically from center left to center right.

And again, we look for the big bang in American politics. We look for the election that changes everything. And Nixon gets elected in 1968, and we say, "Well, it's because of opposition to the war." And he wins in a landslide in 1972, and we say, "But the Congress is still in Democratic hands, and strong Democratic hands." Nixon's impeached and gone, and resigns. Democrats win in 1976, and people say, "Well, see, the Democrats continue to be the dominant party." But underneath, these changes are continuing to happen.

And it's with Reagan's election in 1980 -- Reagan's election was another example of this. You had lots of people who woke up the morning after that election in 1980 and said: "How could this happen? What has happened to the United States of America? Why didn't anybody tell me that a country like this could vote for a man as conservative as Ronald Reagan?" And again, all the forces were out there. But a lot of that, again, was written off to the fact that, you know, [with] the Iranian hostage crisis, Carter was a weak president. But bit by bit, all of this was moving through the political system. And the '94 election, the Congressional election, was obviously the moment at which much turned. And I think that was given the significance it deserved. But Bill Clinton was still in the White House, and by winning in 1996, he seemed to have pushed back the Republican tide.

And people think back to that period, and you can still think of people who said, "Well, [Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich won, but he self-destructed, and it will kill the Republican Party, or it will stop them from ever becoming a majority." And by 2000, Bush is in, and by 2004, he's in with majorities enhanced in both the House and Senate, with a majority of the governors, with more state legislators than they've had in 50 years. It is a process of all of us being unwilling to see what's out there, because we often focus on the wrong target.

As we reported after the 2004 elections that gee, it looks like the Democrats are going into eclipse; it looks like, especially given what might happen in 2006, a kind of hegemony or some Republican majority may be with us for the rest of my voting life, which hopefully is a long time, but may not be. Your read of that? Is it over for the Democrats?

I don't think it's ever over for any party, particularly in a country as dynamic as this one is demographically. The demographic changes in this country put America up for grabs politically for the foreseeable future. It's not clear that Republicans will be able to enlarge and consolidate their gains that they got out of 2004. They very well may be able to do that. You can make an argument that it's not that difficult to see the Democrats winning back the White House. Even in what Bush and the Republicans believe was a very solid victory, it was not an electoral landslide, and it was certainly not a popular-vote landslide. He got a lot of votes, but it was only a three-point margin. The movement of a couple of states again could push the presidency back to the Democrats.

It is harder to see the Democrats easily winning back the Congress at this point, because of the consolidation that has gone on, particularly in the South. The South now gives the Republicans a leg up in holding the Senate and the House, and redistricting through the rest of this decade makes it much more difficult for much change at all in the House. Those districts are locked in. They're incumbent-protected districts. They are not marginal districts for the most part. It would take an upheaval probably to really move the House before we get another census and reapportionment. So the Republicans have an opportunity, if they handle themselves right, to deepen what they've got politically.

The danger for the Republicans is the same danger that any winning party has -- and we've seen it repeatedly over the last two decades -- which is to over-interpret any election as a mandate for something, and to presume that because they won a certain victory that they now have the right to essentially do what they want to do. The art of politics is to take what you have and try to expand on it by reaching out to more people with each election. And if you do things that go too far in one direction, you do that at your peril. So if the Republicans overreach, as the Gingrich Republicans did in the Congress in 1995 and 1996, there could be a backlash against the Republicans that would first be felt, I would guess, in some of the off-year elections in 2006, and certainly could be felt in the 2008 presidential election.

Looking forward to 2006 and thinking about Republicanism being dominant, what do Bush and Rove have to do in issue terms that also will help with their base and bring money in, take money away from Democrats, all the things you have to do to win? What are they likely to be doing in the next couple years?

Well, I think that they did lay some of that out in the campaign, certainly not in as much detail as they would like to think they did. But they talked about a number of things, and I think you'll see them try to do them in terms of issues. Social Security reform is a big issue. There will be a huge debate on that. There will be a debate about whether the system is in crisis, [and] if it is in crisis, what it takes to fix. Bush has a clear sense of what he would like to do, not the details of it, but a clear sense of what he wants to do. They have a political belief that in the long term, this is a winning issue for them politically, … that this appeals to younger voters, people under 45. And they're clearly focused on trying to lock in as many younger voters into voting Republican as they can. They think that's important.

They see things like tort reform, medical malpractice reform, as important issues for Hispanics, for small business, for Main Street conservatives. And they think that an issue like that helps to enlarge their coalition at the margins, at certain places.

Tax reform is another big issue that they talked about in the campaign. It's not clear when they will get to that. I don't know when they'll get to that. But that is another issue where I think they feel that if they can make this tax code somewhat more simple, friendly, less onerous to people, that it will pay political dividends, and along the way presumably they will be rewarding different parts of their economic base coalition, particularly corporate America. So those are some of the issues that he talked about.

The other is the war on terrorism. I think the Democrats certainly underestimated, or tried to underestimate, the appeal or the importance of that issue as something that bridges across not just -- I mean, it holds the Republican coalition together, but it reaches beyond that. And I think Bush's determination on that issue is something that gets through to people and obviously gave enough voters confidence that he was better able to deal with that than John Kerry was that it probably picked him up some votes from swing voters, the few ticket splitters who are left in America, that other issues don't give him. And in a sense, that has given the Republicans back -- it used to be Cold War, anti-Communism [were] the glue that stitched together a lot of an otherwise fractious coalition within the Republican Party. Terrorism now helps to do that, but also reaches beyond that base. ...

This blueprint and what happened in Texas, is it a model of what actually happened in America?

Well, it's only partially so, because Texas is unique. Texas is an animal unto itself, and the politics of Texas are peculiar unto themselves. And so not everything is transferable or translatable to the country at large. But in many ways, if you think of broad principles, there's the demographic piece, certainly a Hispanic piece which goes beyond Texas, that's crucial to the Republican Party. If you talk to Rove or Matthew Dowd or [RNC Chair] Ken Mehlman or any of them, they've been focused on winning a greater share of the Hispanic vote for years, because they know they have to do that, or that demographic wave will roll over them, and they'll be back in the minority. ...

And to use Texas as an analogy, there were, I suppose, exurban movements around Houston and Dallas and other places, and I suppose the way Rove operated as a consultant taught lessons that surely extrapolated to --

Well, never forget that Karl's first real business was direct mail, and direct mail is delivering narrow, targeted messages to specific audiences. And part of it is finding those audiences and figuring out what are the buttons to push that will get them to respond to something. And out of that comes sort of painstaking analysis of who lives where, what kind of people live on what particular block, where are areas that seem to vote Republican that are growing faster than other areas.

And he early on began to look at what we would now think of as the exurban counties around Dallas and Houston, the Collin counties or the Denton counties around Dallas, as places where -- again, this was not just saying, "Well, they're out there, and we ought to get our share." It was recognizing they're out there and going aggressively to try to build an organization, talk to them, send them direct mail, get the candidate in there, get surrogates in there and to try to maximize the vote.

Rove always had this expression of the "paint-me-red Republicans" -- that there are areas where you've got a solid Republican vote; the goal there is just to maximize turnout in those areas. There are other areas where you're beginning to get the shimmers of a Republican vote; what you've got to do there is turn people from sometime Republican voters to regular Republican voters.

One of the things that happened, I think, in the decade from 1990 to 2000, or 1994 to 2004, is that what we saw was a greater homogenization within each party. Look at Texas. Texas is the best example, because Bush was so familiar with it, and Rove was in the middle of that. The percentage of people in Texas who called themselves conservatives was consistently 40 percent to 45 percent if you started in 1978 and went forward to 1994. That percentage never really changed. Texas was a predominantly conservative state.

In 1978, when Bill Clements was elected governor, the percentage of conservatives who said they were Republicans was probably 30 percent, something like that. By the time Bush is elected in 1994, the percentage of those conservatives hasn't changed, but the percentage who say "I'm a Republican" has grown to probably 55 percent or 60 percent. What the Rove/Dowd/Bush/Mehlman/McKinnon operation has had as a guiding principle is the more people you can get to call themselves Republican, the better off you are, because over the period of the '90s, Republicans, people who call themselves Republican, began to vote Republican in higher percentages than ever before -- 90 percent. Had been 75 percent or 80 percent. That 10 or 12 or 14 points makes a huge difference in an election.

So when Ed Gillespie was chosen to be chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1999, he said to Karl Rove, "What's the most important thing I can do?" And Rove said, "You can register 3 million Republicans," because they knew if you get people registered as Republicans, you're going to get x percent of those to come out, and 90 percent of those who come out, or 95 percent, will vote for the Republican candidate. So going back to Texas, as they looked at that, the whole goal was first to get people to begin to vote Republican, and then to begin to call themselves Republican. And out of that, you then build a majority party.

And that's happened in lots of America, too.

Yes. That's what we've seen in 2004, is that notion writ large around the country. That was the strategy for 2004. And so where did they do it? They did it in the rural areas, as they had done it in Texas in the mid-80s. They began to consolidate rural -- East Texas, for example, a bastion of Yellow Dog Democrats through the '70s and part of the '80s, that began to vote Republican, and by now is solidly Republican. They began to do it in Texas in the fast-growing counties -- first the suburban and then the exurban counties outside the core urban counties of Houston and Dallas, because they knew they were maximizing where they were in those urban counties. So they had to make the suburbs in Texas Republican, and then they realized it's beyond the suburbs where the real growth is taking place. And so they went around the country in 2001 and 2002 and 2003 and said, "OK, where are the fastest growing counties, because those are counties where we're more likely to find Republicans."

But the other thing they did then was they said, "OK, who are people who are probably Republican that we're overlooking, who may be in an urban area, people who drive a Cadillac, or whatever magazines they subscribe to?" And they did a great deal of very narrow targeting and analysis and reached out to them as well. So again, it was not simply going to the rural areas. It was not simply focusing on exurban areas. It was trying to find people who in one way or another fit the Republican model, and to talk to them directly and stitch that together into making the kind of victory they had.

Presumably the Democrats could do, did do some of this themselves. Was it just that Rove and those guys did it better?

I think that's partly true. It's very hard to say the Democrats did a bad job of trying to identify and get out their vote. What the Democrats did was more limited than what the Republicans did, and by that I mean the Democrats' effort at registration in particular was aimed primarily at the minority community. That was the big focus for obvious reasons. The biggest falloff in their vote tends to be in minority areas. Minority communities vote less regularly; fewer people are registered. So they put a great deal of effort into that, and they did a very good job on it. In some places, they out-registered the Republicans at certain points during 2004 in the registration battles.

And in their targeting, I think they were more aggressive in their targeting and trying to reach people this time. And there was some evidence that they talked to more people than the Republicans did. But I think that the Republicans did it more across the board, and I think they had a greater strategic sense. And even Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, now acknowledges this, that what the Republicans did better than the Democrats did was they figured out ways to go into the Democratic base and peel away votes. It's not that they did a better job of getting their base out than the Democrats did at getting their base out. But I think that while the Democrats thought the Kerry message was speaking to swing voters, the Republicans in the end were more effective at getting those swing voters.

[Political consultant James] Carville said that the reason that blue America was so stunned at what had happened was that they finally had to realize that they'd lost the argument. Do you think they lost the argument?

I think they did in this election. I don't know whether they've forevermore lost the argument, but it's a very good question, and it goes back to a conversation I had with Rove, again in '99, as they were getting ready for the election. We were talking about Clinton and the Democratic Party, and I was asking him about what changes had to be made in the Republican Party, in the way that Clinton had had to make changes in the Democratic Party. And he said, "I think the difference is," he said, "Clinton had to abandon the roots of the Democratic Party. He had to deny the roots of the Democratic Party. He had to deny that they were a big-government party. He had to deny that they were spenders. He had to deny their historic position on death penalty."

He said, "We don't have to deny our roots." He said, "We do not have to deny our roots as the party of small government or strong defense or even of social conservativism." He said, "We have to find a way to talk about it that gives us broader reach than we've had, but we don't have to deny it." And it's very interesting as you look back on it and see how these two elections have played out. His argument was that Clinton, though he was a very skilled politician and had proven that in '92 and in '96, that there was very little Clinton could do to translate that or transfer it to the Democratic Party going forward. And I think what Rove is hoping is that George W. Bush and the model that they've set up does translate forward for whoever comes after Bush in 2008.

That's a real open question in my mind. So much of this hinges around the ability of a candidate to define a party and then pick up that model and see if they can do it. And it's very hard to replicate. And as you look forward, you think, well, who could do that for the Republicans in 2008? …

What's your understanding of how it comes to pass that [Social Security reform] becomes the thing they put out front and center?

It fits into Bush's desire to be bold. It fits into the Bush administration's and Karl Rove's desire to move the politics of the country toward the Republican Party by going after workers under 45 with a personal account that they think will lock those voters closer to the Republican Party over time. And it is something in Bush's idea of being a consequential president. He says, "I'm not here to play small ball," and "We're here to address problems." Bush is, I think, at heart a guy who likes to solve problems, and this kind of rolls all that into one.

And also, I think they believe that there is a greater potential to get a consensus to do something about Social Security than, for example, Medicare, which is in many ways a much tougher and bigger problem than the Social Security financial problem. And this kind of brings all of the elements of their kind of domestic philosophy together into one big package and one big fight.

As a veteran correspondent and political reporter, were you surprised that they would take on Social Security? Right now it is such a cliché that it's the third rail of politics.

No. They started this in 1999 in the campaign, and to some extent, this was either the moment he did it or looked foolish for not doing it, or looked disingenuous for not doing it. And he talked about it. He raised it in 1999. He campaigned all the way through 2000 on it. He appointed a commission in his first term which came up with some proposals. But in a sense, he's never really engaged the issue until the State of the Union this year, and it was really either now or never, because he has to begin to get something done on it this year, because next year's a campaign year; it's going to be much tougher. And after 2006, there's very little hope that he can get something that big done. So this was the moment he had to do it, and the State of the Union was the time to really frame the debate as best he could. ...

Well, and as Grover Norquist said to us, it may be that -- Reagan actually didn't knock the wall down to the Soviet Union, but he gets all the credit for it. He started a process, and it may be that one election cycle, two election cycles down the road, Bush begins to get a lot of credit for what is almost inevitable, which is some version of Social Security reform.

Well, something is going to happen to Social Security. I think the big question is will he get the centerpiece of this plan, which is the creation of private accounts for people? Some other changes to keep the thing solvent are inevitable; how big or how controversial they'll be remains to be seen. I think the real question is whether he's successful in changing the structure of the system to allow people to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts.

That's really the political fight, because that goes to the philosophy that he's pushing. He's not there simply to make Social Security solvent; he's there to change it in a way that fits into his philosophy of government, which is to give people more control over their own money or their own lives or their own destiny, the freedom and liberty philosophy that he articulated in the State of the Union, then mostly about foreign policy, but it also applies in his mind to domestic policy, and Social Security is the centerpiece.

This is the thing Norquist was also saying, which is this idea that what this is about is about articulating and ultimately changing the relationship of government to individuals, partly to make more Republicans down the road, younger people who will identify themselves as part of the ownership class, have stock, own stock, [and] therefore say, "Hey, I'm more Republican than Democrat."

Well, they have believed for a long time that the more you can get people into the stock market, the more you can get them to vote Republican. There is in their mind a direct line, linkage, correlation on that. We tried to do some polling on that a year ago, and we found that there is some validity to that, but not nearly as much as Grover Norquist or others who articulate it so vociferously would like to believe; that it's a somewhat more convoluted connection between them.

But there's no question that they see this as a way to try to get younger voters into the Republican Party in a more permanent way. The battle always is for the young generation of voters. If you can lock people in between 25 and 34 voting Democratic or voting Republican, you're likely to have them for the rest of their lives. And they see from their own research and everybody else's that these private accounts or personal accounts are much more popular among workers under 45 than they are among workers who are older, for obvious reasons. They don't believe Social Security is going to be there for them anyway; they'd rather take the risk themselves.

Now, the difficulty that they're going to have on this is that this plan, as they have begun to lay it out, is a) very, very complicated, and b) not quite as clear-cut in the idea that it's your money as some people would like to believe. Some of it's government money; some of it may be your money. How much of that is still yet to be known. And I think the more the fine print gets debated, the less clear-cut that this will be that this is simply your money and you can do whatever you want with it. So that's part of the sales job that Bush is going to have to take on. ...

When I talked to [former Environmental Protection Agency head] Christine Todd Whitman and soon to talk to other Republican moderates, they're very unhappy now, going back to the re-election with the base strategy. They're unhappy about the idea that maybe Rove's weekly meetings with the social conservatives or ... social fundamentalists, ... she said, [make them] captive to those people, the Gary Bauers of the world and others. Is the policy operation at the White House, as the moderates would argue, captive?

I don't know if I would use the word "captive." It is certainly highly conscious of all of the things they're interested in, and they pay a lot of attention to making sure they do not stray very far from that. The best recent example of that is when Mike Fletcher and Jim VandeHei from our paper interviewed the president just before the inauguration, and they asked him specifically, "Will you push the gay marriage constitutional amendment in a second term?" And he basically said: "Look, we did that last year. The Senate made it very clear where they stand. This is basically a settled issue. I'm for it, but not a lot's going to change."

The next morning, [Press Secretary] Scott McClellan called Jim VandeHei and said, "The president would like to revise and extend on that." And basically [he] made it clear that they realized that he had misspoken, that they could not send that signal to the right and to social conservatives. And we saw in the State of the Union there was again a statement, "I am for a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage."

They never want to get too far away from the base on any of those issues. It doesn't mean, I don't think, that in this term Bush is going to push hard for that, but the moderates are certainly right that this administration caters to its base, and its social conservative base. Doesn't mean it does everything that pro-life Republicans would like to see, but they are always mindful of that because they know that that coalition has sustained them through a very tough primary fight in 1999 and 2000, through a very tough election in 2000 and through an even tougher re-election in 2004. Without the unity of that base, this president would not have had the success he's had.

And the idea [is] that in 2006 and certainly in 2008, there's going to be a kind of Republican internal food fight because Bush doesn't have an obvious successor. The vice president obviously isn't going to run, apparently not going to run at all. What about that notion? Is that what we have to look forward to?

I expect we do. The question is whether the people in the center of the Republican Party, moderates, the liberal Republicans, have the muscle to really make a difference on that fight. We're going to see a fight. There's a fight growing between deficit hawks and supply-siders, an historic and long-standing divide within the Republican Party that's going to come to the surface this year and as we go forward. The social issue versus the social moderate fight will happen in the next few years and heading into the 2008 campaign. Immigration divides the Republican Party; trade divides the Republican Party. The Republican Party is not as unified as Bush's presidency has made it appear, and the more he looks like a lame duck, the more we're going to see that fight occur.

But there are still a lot of Republican strategists who question whether a pro-choice Republican can ever be nominated as president. Some think perhaps [former New York City Mayor] Rudy Giuliani is the only one who could. There are a variety of people who may run for president on the Republican side in 2008 who are pro-choice, but whether they can get through the primary battles is another question.

But this is a party that's got divisions within it, just as the Democratic Party does. Any party big enough to be a governing party is a coalition that has divisions. And the test for any political leader is to figure out how you bring that disparate coalition together and how do you find ways to unite it. And what Bush has done is find ways to unite it.

We talked to people who say Rove is the kind of guy -- if you go all the way back with him, Rove is the kind of guy who likes to do the bad stuff first. So you get elected in 2000, he wants to do all the tough stuff, and that he'll likely move closer to the center, or hope to move the policy, the arguments, everything closer to the center in the second term, everything from judges to whatever. Are you seeing any indication of that? And do you agree with the general proposition?

Well, I agree that politically that is what people assume, just as people assume that in a presidential primary campaign, Democrats run to the left to get nominated and back to the center; Republicans run to the right and back to the center in a general election. But I think that one area where people have constantly misunderstood Bush is to assume that he is really a moderate, which he's not. He's a conservative: His principles are conservative; his convictions are conservative. He has a style which is designed both by conscious choice and simply by his own personality that suggests he's moderate. He can get along well with all kinds of people, which he can. He is a people person. But I don't think that that means his principles or his convictions are less conservative than we've seen in his presidency.

There's nothing to suggest that he's a real moderate. He likes to get things done, and most people who like to get things done have to make some compromises, and Bush is willing to do that on certain things. But fundamentally he is on the right side of the political spectrum, and I don't think we're going to see huge changes in that. ...

They talk about [the election as] a mandate: that the president was re-elected, that the numbers really mean Republicans [will be the majority party] on into our future for a while. Others, of course, have come in and said 3 percent, the lowest re-election numbers of any president in the century, even half of what Truman got, for example. Was it a mandate?

Yes, it was a mandate. It was a tough, tough campaign in a very tough time for the country, and Bush prevailed on that. So I think in that sense it was a mandate. It was a popular-vote victory; it was an electoral victory. It was something he didn't get four years ago, and it came after one of the most controversial first terms of any modern president.

The question is, how big of a mandate is that? And Bush is always one to try to push the edge of the envelope on anything like that. He talks about political capital and political capital earned but not used is political capital wasted. It's very much their style to take the numbers and put them in the best possible light so that they talk about the size of the popular vote, the number of votes that he got, those sorts of things, to suggest this was a historically big victory, and the flipside of that, as many have said, is a much narrower victory than most re-elected incumbents and therefore suggests that the country is still divided.

I don't think there's any question that the country is still divided. I don't think Democrats would be as tough as they're sounding if they felt Bush had a real political mandate. This is not like Reagan in 1980 or even 1984, where Democrats said, "We've got a real problem on our hands, and this guy has a real popular mandate." But Bush doesn't worry that much about that. Bush believes you fight an election, you win it, you ought to do what you said you were going to do. And he'll pursue the policies that he talked about in his campaign as if he got a 59 percent vote as opposed to 59 million votes. And it's just his style to do that, and Rove's as well. They do not assume that because things were a little closer than some people might have expected that they've got to trim their sails. ...

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posted april 12, 2005

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