You saw fellows like Rove who fit the job description all over America when you reported politics. How was Rove different than those other people when you'd sit and talk to him, when you met him?
One, he is smarter; he just plain is. He is well read. I had written a couple of books; he had read them. That's always a nice thing. He wanted me to make a presentation to his staff on one of these books. I had done a lot of work at that time on the whole rise of the conservative movement. That's been sort of my one claim to fame. And he knew this inside out, not just in Texas but everywhere. And he was acutely aware of what the pressures were, what conservatives capitalized on, what helped drive this whole movement, from race to taxes, to the whole '60s sexual revolution.
So the pleasure of dealing with Karl was that this was a tough, savvy political guy. And I would not call him an intellectual, but smart -- I mean, someone you could have a good conversation with.
Self-educated, I'd gather, more or less?
More or less. He went to college; I don't believe he ever got his degree. He, though, has taught himself and read voluminously. He has some real focuses, like the McKinley administration back in 1896, and some quirks of his own that would make him kind of unique as an academic. But he has looked at the stuff. But more importantly from a political point of view, he has looked at sort of the whole fabric of precinct data, of election results, poll results.
He was a direct mail specialist, and in direct mail, one of the things you look for, the word they now use -- I don't think they used it back in his day -- [is] "anger points." You try to get what makes somebody angry. And if you can then target one set of mail to that constituency that gets angry about the high payments that go to trial lawyers, or the late-term abortion, or whatever the issue is, you push that button. And it takes very complex technological advances to target those constituencies. You have to find them by using things like their magazine subscriptions, books that they buy, all kinds of information, consumer data and voting data, in order to find voters who fit your target group.
That's really what Karl has done a lot of work on, and [it's] been very helpful to him as a strategist, unlike many of these guys who come out of the media side, where all you're doing is sort of big picture. And he understands the sort of micro level of politics in addition to the macro level. I don't mean to glorify him too much, but you've got to give him a fair amount of credit.
You know a lot about, as you said, the conservative movement in America, the development of the arc of conservatism and conservative thought in America. Those of us who haven't really paid attention ... probably misread a real revolution that seemed to be going on in America. We thought [Sen. Barry] Goldwater was the death knell of conservatism forever. Little did we know, as many have said, it was the Woodstock for a certain generation of young conservatives. Give me the arc in the development of conservative thinking.
Well, Karl is 14 when the Goldwater election takes place. It's kind of a coming-of-age period, or the beginning of a coming of age. A lot of people have their first real political memories from their early teens. He then sees Lyndon Johnson elected, the Great Society enacted. But literally, by the time he's 16, the Democratic Party has already started to go south. The 1966 elections, there's a huge negative response to the riots in Watts, in about two other cities. I think Detroit came pretty much right in then. And the whole crime, law-and-order issue suddenly takes on new salience. And the Democrats lose many, many seats in the House and the Senate in '66.
And then in '68, when he's 18 -- I think as you're growing up politically, it's a crucial time. The Democratic Party is virtually imploding with the Hubert Humphrey campaign; Humphrey only gets 43 percent of the vote. And you see basically the start of the conservative majority. Nixon gets 43 percent, too, just barely beating Humphrey, but George Wallace gets, I think, 13 percent. And 43 and 13 make 56, and basically that becomes the foundation for a conservative majority. Thereafter, Nixon recognizes that, sees the importance of all those Wallace voters and by '72 absorbs them. And at the same time, the Democratic Party is continuing its downward slide with George McGovern in 1972.
So for a guy like Karl, this is a whole period of the blossoming and flourishing of a movement that, as you say, many others at that time -- and I would say myself included -- saw a totally different world of the civil rights movement, the 1960s, the antiwar protests and so forth. But if you really look at majority politics as opposed to sort of movement politics, the majority was turning to the right. And Karl, I think -- I don't know, because I don't know what's going on in his mind -- must have sensed that, and he felt very much a part of that in contrast to much of the intelligentsia of the country.
If you think about who else is that age, too, you've got [Newt] Gingrich and George W. Bush, for example. You've got a whole crowd of people who were part of something [the media] wasn't paying any attention to at all.
That's right. It's this whole universe that actually comes to fruition, in part in 1980 with the Reagan Revolution, when Reagan wins, really stunning people. How could this actor from California suddenly become president? But not only does he win; the Republicans take the Senate in 1980, which everyone thought was an impossible task to achieve. It's still a Democratic majority, but it's a conservative majority in the House that controls the House. It's the Boll Weevil Democrats plus the Republicans, who then basically push the center-left Democrats aside and set the agenda for the whole 1981-82 period.
So this is a movement that continues on the ascendancy in 1994. There is this true revolution, the Gingrich revolution, when they take the House and the Senate, and they have kept it ever since. And then Bush gets elected, and in the two elections since his first election, the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate have been strengthened. So now there are majorities in the governorships, in the state legislatures, in Congress, in the Senate and the White House.
It's over that period from 1964 to 2004, 40 years, it's been a long, slow but rolling Republican realignment. And Karl was really fortunate to be positioned in a state that sort of went into this whole process at two or three times the rate of the rest of the country. And he saw it happening, and not just saw it, but he pushed and shoved it in a state where this was happening. And it sort of lent him to this position where he now is the chief political adviser to what is a very conservative administration, and in many ways more conservative than the Reagan administration. …
Tell me a little bit about the politics of the South and the evolution of the South.
I think there's no question that the shift of the South away from its Democratic roots was driven by race. And if you look at the whole process, the South after Truman sought to integrate the armed forces and some other pro-black policies. In 1948, [South Carolina Sen.] Strom Thurmond ran, and he won the seven Southern states on a basically anti-integration, progressively "anti-" plank. This accelerates when Lyndon Johnson becomes president after Kennedy's death. He decides to endorse the '64 Civil Rights Act and make it into a very central part of his whole policy and program, and wins approval of it. The only places Goldwater wins are Arizona and almost the exact same Southern states as carried by Strom Thurmond. This is the hard core Black Belt South, where the opposition to civil rights was most intense.
And you get a shift in the South of the white electorate. It starts at the top with the bankers and the downtown businessmen, but it moves very fast, so that's where it is basically in the Eisenhower years. But come Lyndon Johnson, it moves right down to white rural and working-class voters who are heavily driven by race as an issue. And so you get -- in the 1980s, it was commonplace to go to a Republican Party in a state like South Carolina or Mississippi, and all their calculations, when they would look at "What can we win in the legislature?," it was all based on "What is the percentage of the black vote in that district?" …
The other basic strategy was that the Republicans would be looking for districts that might be as much as 45 or 50 percent black, which they would calculate. And a Democratic primary would nominate a black, which would then give them a strong shot of winning the general election by running a white guy against him. So they had almost all the ways of looking at elections was through the lens of race, one way or the other. And the South became the driving force in the Republican Party.
You also have in the South -- it's not just race; you have a much more kind of anti-government, anti-authoritarian tradition. It's a Scotch-Irish-rooted part of the country where people don't like to be told what to do, where men take pride in being tough, and it is a different culture. And that was something also that the Republicans captured over time, and that George Bush, for example, strikes a nerve on.
And Rove, who by all accounts is a student of the South, ... learns what from looking at the South that he applies to Texas?
Texas is a little more complex than a place like Mississippi or South Carolina, because you have a predominantly white East Texas with strong roots in the Democratic Party, a populist Democratic Party. You have German communities in a lot of Texas that had roots with socialism, basically, back in Germany, so their liberal ties are very strong. I think in Texas, race clearly played a factor, but the values issues began to play much stronger, and the values issues became a factor.
And a lot of these values issues are overlain with race a lot. For example, welfare was a strong issue in his 1994 campaign. The whole idea of welfare reform, there became a lot of resentment. If you talked to white Texans, many of them Democrats, they would say that the Democrats had allowed a system to grow up where people were being paid not to work, where the system basically provided incentives to have children out of wedlock, subsidized by the state. They were very angry at that. At the same time, a lot of the beneficiaries in these programs were, in Texas, black or Hispanic. So it cut all kinds of different ways. Karl knew that. ...
George W. Bush in '94, under Karl's direction, ran heavily on the issue of juvenile crime. There was, again, a strong feeling that juveniles were being coddled in the courts. Because juveniles are not found guilty of a crime, they're often sentenced to some other kind of incarceration for other reasons that seemed very elliptical and not very effective. And so Bush ran on a platform that he was going to make the whole juvenile crime system much tougher, this whole idea of boot camp kind of programs.
So values began to overlay race, and especially after the use of racial issues became verboten in the South, too, the civil rights movement won, and there came a point where you could not use overt appeals on race. And questions of values -- it's also interesting that if you look at the tax issue, one of the big complaints people had about the taxes that were paid was that these taxes were going to Great Society programs that largely benefited minorities. So all of these are interacting and dynamic, and I think Karl understood that.
And also that to take these stands meshed with, as opposed to conflicting [with], overall Republican conservative ideological principle stands. So you could combine sort of the intellectual and moral level of Republican conservatism, with all these appeals to whites on race, whites on crime; that there was a very interesting meshing of taxes, crime, race, values all together that were uniquely inviolate of Republican long-held principles of less government, less taxes and so forth. It was a very effective melding. And Karl was not alone in that; there were a lot of people who were working on that, but Karl certainly understood that. …
So Rove gets himself associated with George W. Bush. Do you know how?
I think he knew the father. He comes to Washington, D.C., as executive director first of the College Republicans, and then I think in the 1972 election -- so he would take office in '73 -- he wins the chairmanship of the College Republicans. This is just at the same time that pater Bush is head of the Republican National Committee, and they are in the same offices virtually, over on First Street.
And I think father Bush takes him under his wing, and he becomes a Bush guy back then. And then over time, he becomes a George W. Bush guy. But he was a Bush supporter, and I believe that he worked in the Bush 1980 presidential campaign. So his ties to that family go back quite a ways.
It's interesting you were saying that. I don't think of the father as a conservative. Either I think of him as a realist or a traditionalist or a moderate. What are Rove's politics? And am I right about the father?
Bush sort of ran the gamut, but on a lot of issues early on in his campaign, he was a moderate; there's no question. He was not a social conservative by any stretch of the imagination. He was elected out of Texas, but his roots were in Connecticut and Maine. This was very different, as Prescott Bush, the senator from Connecticut [and father of George H.W. Bush], was a big advocate and supporter of Planned Parenthood, for example. …
The switch from Prescott down to George W. is pretty dramatic. I mean that they really flip on these cultural issues, where the Bush family moves -- and the father Bush, George H.W, in his own career moves to the right, marginally, under the guidance of a very good friend of Karl Rove's, Lee Atwater. And Lee convinces the father that you have to be a conservative, and you have to be an anti-abortion conservative, and you have to be basically good on the social issues if you want to get the nomination to be president of the United States.
And he does persuade the father of those positions. But there were always doubts in the Republican conservative community over how deeply felt those views were. And [in] sort of style and manner, the father never came across as a gut conservative.
You mentioned when we first started that, of the young fellows you met in the world in the '80s and the '70s, there was Karl Rove and there was George W. Bush. Let's join George W. Bush back there and bring him up to the moment where he becomes a candidate for governor of Texas. Who is that young man you come across? What is he like, what does he do, and could you see greatness in that guy?
To be honest, no, I could not. I liked him. He's a very friendly guy. He's the kind of guy who knows your name, remembers it. He seemed like a nice guy to have a beer with, and you could kid around with him like crazy and run into him at a political event. And there would be a lot of wise-guy stuff, you know, and a lot of language that I can't use here. And I'm a little older than them. And I'd say, "How you doin', kid?" And he'd say, "Edsall, what are you trying to do around here? You causing trouble?" And, well, we had a lot of jousting around. He did not convey the quality of a president at that stage in his life. And this is 1988 when I first [met him].
He's a very talented politician, however. And I remember going down right after he won the Texas governorship, for some reason, to Texas. And I stopped by, and he was holding a big press conference. It was a Republican convention, a state party convention. There's this big, huge crowd of reporters, maybe 30 or 40 reporters, because there was a huge controversy over who was going to win power in the party. Was it going to be this very conservative wing in this Texas Republican Party or the slightly less conservative wing? And it was a bloody battle. And I'm standing way in the back of this thing, and right out of the blue, Bush says: "Hey, Edsall, what are you doing down here? Come by. Stop by at the mansion." And he also knew I was a national reporter, but he had a good manner.
And I think that's what all the people who have backed him, all through his career -- he's had a lot of backers who lost a lot of money on his business ventures, but they stuck with him, in part because he smells like a winner. ... And all these people -- these investors, these other backers, political backers -- they saw in George Bush somebody who had a very strong potential future. They also saw a guy whose father was extraordinarily important. And regardless of whether George W. succeeded, it didn't hurt to be friends with the son of the actual president of the United States of America.
When you heard that Karl Rove and George W. Bush were teaming up, what did you think of that combination?
Back then, Ann Richards, who he first ran against, looked pretty tough. She had won election in 1990, and her popularity, all the poll numbers looked very strong for her. And it looked like a risk -- and at the beginning, like a losing risk -- for Rove and for George W. Bush, running in 1994 against her. As it turns out, that was 1994; there was a whole national wave that Gingrich helped bring about, but it was actually Clinton that helped bring about, in the manner that he governed, real animosity towards the Democratic Party. Sort of suddenly [the Republicans] just exploded, and exploded everywhere, especially in the South, where Democrats and congressional districts are getting wiped out everywhere, conservative Democrats and moderate Democrats, but through the whole country.
George Bush was there. He ran a good campaign, but he also had a wave. And that 1994 wave was a big one, and it was very nice to be a Republican that year, running for office. And he ends up beating Richards. I forget by how much; it was moderately. It was not a landslide, but it wasn't a razor-[thin margin] either.
Did you go down and report any of it?
Yeah, I went down and covered some of it and saw Bush. He was really pushing this whole juvenile crime issue and tort reform. And he made a very presentable figure on the stump. But a lot of campaigning there was just going [from] small town to small town. And that is his forte, that kind of campaigning.
The relationship of Rove to Bush -- did you assess any of that while you were there?
I don't think at that point that I fully recognized -- not that I ever could -- but the sort of intensity of this relationship, that the two have a symbiotic and neural relationship that is at another plane than most relationships, in politics or anywhere. We're talking a different kind of terrain. And I don't think I spotted it yet at that point. I remember sitting in Karl Rove's office talking to him, very articulate, and he described how he thought they could win, and what Bush's strengths were and what Richards' liabilities were, and made a very good case. But the emotional level of this tie, the scope of that, I didn't catch, I have to say.
Did you have a sense then, especially since you knew George Bush, that he was a kind of empty vessel that somebody like Rove or Bob Bullock, the lieutenant governor, or somebody had poured information into, and that he was the point man for a real skillful political operation on another level?
… I can't say that I saw Bush as an empty vessel. I can't say that I saw him as a full vessel, either. I didn't know him on a substantive level. I knew him as a political guy who was fun to kid around with. He was not somebody I ever talked policy or detail with; I'd never sort of tested his knowledge in that sense, in the same way. With Karl, the combination of politics and substance was always there. You had a knowledge of the issues and the political utility of the issues just meshing in conversations all the time. …
So when do you hear that George W. Bush and his formidable helper, Karl Rove, [have] the White House in mind?
Oh, there's talk about that already as he's running for re-election as governor. And he's doing a lot of things to signal his strengths. I think before even the election is held, he's making large claims about how high his Hispanic percentage will be. And I believe they ended up with 49 percent. They were really praying to break 50 percent and show that a Republican could win more than half the Hispanic vote. They were sending out signals loud and clear, basically, that the presidency was in mind.
And at that time, it's interesting, Karl had already put together much of the core team that has carried Bush in 2000 and again in 2004. He had Matt Dowd on board in 1998 for the gubernatorial campaign, and he had Mark McKinnon on board. Next year Ken Mehlman will join, basically in Texas, three of what really is about a five-member triumvirate who are already there. And right after the 1998 election, his key fund-raiser types already are meeting.
And they're developing the plans with the full knowledge and guidance -- because these guys know how to do things -- of setting up this whole Pioneer operation of fund-raisers which allowed Bush to become the first candidate since the creation of public financing to thumb his nose at public financing and say, "I'm going to fund my own primary campaign, and I'm going to spend as much as I want." And he did, and he raised $100 million for the primaries of 2000. When guys who took public financing, I think, were limited to around $42 million, he had more than twice the amount of money, and he could fund it. …
[How much of the financing operation is Rove?]
I think that he delegates a lot of authority. I've spent quite a bit of time lately talking to guys like Ken Mehlman and Matt Dowd and some others. These people do a lot of thinking on their own, come up with ideas. He oversees, I think, like a CEO who entrusts his senior staff. ... With the fund-raisers, there are some Republicans who are real pros at fund-raising, and they don't need much oversight. What you've got to do is get them going in the right direction with a good plan, and then let them rock 'n' roll, and they do it. And I think there are a number of people like that.
Where Karl has shown real skill is finding those people of money and as political strategists. Those two categories of people, he has been very good. There's a whole elite that has now come up with Karl that wasn't there in Washington six years ago. You have a guy named Tony Feather, who was the political director of the 2000 campaign. He is now a major direct mail voter-contact specialist. You've got Matt Dowd, who was a Texas Democrat in 1994, who is now probably the most respected polling and media strategist. You have Mark McKinnon, who was also a Texas Democrat and had actually worked for Ann Richards in 1994, who is now a major player who could put together himself this group called Maverick Media, a 12-member consortium of consultants, political and Madison Avenue, to basically do the Bush campaign. These guys, all of them -- Ken Mehlman, who's now head of the RNC -- these guys have moved up, and they are all Karl Rove protégés.
So you have in the Washington political community now this elite that is a Rove elite. You had a somewhat similar phenomenon when Lee Atwater was around, and he sort of moved up the ladder. He brought a lot of people up with him who now you'll find all through the Washington lobbying community and others, making millions and millions of dollars. …
But there's a difference between Atwater and Rove, too, isn't there? Atwater is a classic, wonderful figure, but really a political operative. Rove has this -- you've already articulated about Texas -- a kind of policy head that goes with the political skill.
... I think that Lee and Karl are two very different political animals. Lee took huge emotional joy in discovering something. If he would discover a wedge issue, he would describe a situation that he was running, and a campaign in South Carolina. A Democrat, he discovered, had gone to New York, gone to a private fund-raiser at some place in Greenwich Village … and said, "I want to promise you that I will be the third senator from New York." And he said, "When I saw that, and what it was going to do in South Carolina, I wanted to jump out the window and dive into the pool."
Karl is a much more even-keel and thoughtful person. He knows what policy is, and he knows the details of legislation. The Bush administration has pushed a lot of legislation that would be very damaging to the Democrats, like tort reform, which would hurt the plaintiffs' bar, which is a major source of money to the Democrats.
You can call up Karl and ask him, "Are you trying to screw the Democrats?" He will have a substantive answer to that, detailing why the legislation is needed, yada yada yada, which can really diffuse the political purposes. Lee Atwater would just say, "Yeah, the more we can get these guys, the better." His interest and substance was totally from a political vantage point.
What's the deal with what looks like a pattern across Rove's career of using homosexuality, gay things, one way or the other as issues and advantages?
I think the gay issue is a very effective issue. … And it's like a clear weakness [for] the Democratic Party. From a pure mechanical, "I want 51 percent of the vote" kind of -- look, you see gay questions. And a Republican says, "They're going to be a winner." And Karl wants to be a winner. There is no question. That is the one single thing driving him. Winning is at the top.
His personal political ideology, can you tell?
I think he's conservative-ish, but I really don't know. He can make a very strong case for a lot of the conservative legislation that the Bush administration is pushing through, probably a better case verbally, because he's much better verbally than the president. What he believes in is hard for me to tell. It's just hard. In some ways he comes across, for example, as a much more secular person than a lot of the religious right. But he works very effectively with religious conservative, religious leaders. … It may be that his interest in winning is the dominant consideration in his calculations, which may not be a bad thing for someone who's in the business of politics. ...
How much of the mix do you figure is policy driving politics, or politics driving policy?
Bush came into office with some pretty smart, politically smart policies. His focus on tort reform, medical liability controls, all those which have been a major part of his campaign also have huge political benefits for his constituency. The whole universe of large corporate donors, they hate trial lawyers, and that really unifies them. Trial lawyers are a Democratic constituency; they've got nothing to gain, really, trying to appeal to them. So going after them is a winning political strategy, but it's also at the core of Bush's policy agenda. So I think Karl was very influential in getting that onto Bush's radar system, and I think Bush sensed both that he believed in it, and he comes out of the community that opposes trial lawyers, and he saw the political advantages that flow from them.
But I think Karl is very active in domestic matters especially. His role on foreign policy matters is less clear to me. I don't cover those; in fairness, I do not. But I think in terms of the players, there are millions of little decisions. They had this Medicare proposal; they add drug legislation. It's not just Medicare, changing the program and creating a drug benefit. It's who's going to benefit from this, whatever, $400 million in drug payments they're going to be making. What influence over the prices will be taken by the government, and how much will be left in the marketplace? How much is sure to go to the drug companies without the threat of generic drug companies, for example?
These are lots of decisions that get seemingly smaller and smaller and that are out of the radar system, and I think Karl is involved in those extensively, and he knows what's going on at that level very, very much. In this town, you have a community of people who are very politically active. You've got like a whole Atwater elite that came up there, now heavily into the lobbying community. They're all associated with Karl. They all actively work on campaigns, at campaign time. They basically leave their jobs, and they work full time at the convention, and then they go work full time in the state that they may come from, where they're familiar.
So this whole Washington lobbying community is a crucial pillar of the Republican Party in major political ways. At the same time, these are the guys who care about all these sort of tertiary-level decisions that have played down there below the radar screen. Their clients win or lose on all these little things. And Karl knows all these guys. And insofar as it's possible to get a nudge, and possible to signal which way to go, he's in a very good position to help a lot of friends at the same time as he maintains a strong political force and presence.
So … besides getting Bush elected and other Republicans elected, he's also playing a fundamental role in an in-and-out system, basically.
Yes. But this goes on in the lobbying community. How do you word the gay marriage amendment? There's a lot of debate in the religious and social conservative community on what kind of amendment it should be. Should it permit gay unions? Should it absolutely prohibit marriage and unions? There's a lot of complexities, and there are a lot of players in that. And getting into the detail of what exactly would Bush endorse becomes a very important decision.
And I think Karl would be deeply involved in all the mechanics of that. Bush may -- I don't know -- make the decision, "Yes, I'm going to go with a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages." And that may be a decision that he and Karl reach together, whatever.
But then there are all the little decisions that flow out of that, about the actual wording and how and where you're going to do the campaigning. A lot of groups would want to jump on that, and the guys in Iowa would like to be first out of the box. Who's going to get the first shot at trying to win state approval of the thing? What consultants are going to work on the campaign to actually win that state approval? You know, they have TV campaigns, you raise money, do all kinds of things for these. The echo effect is extensive. And I think Karl keeps a watchdog eye on all that echo effect. And insofar as he can influence them to the advantage of the administration, he does so.
Take me back for a second to the 2000 campaign. Is Karl the kind of guy who, before Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina, anything, would have whispered, or even said out loud, to reporters like you, "We're going to win; we have a momentum going," to kind of create what every political reporter calls "hidden inevitability" to his candidacy? And if he is, what happened in New Hampshire in 2000, in 1999?
I think Karl is too smart to make too boastful statements about his campaign. But that campaign was gaining momentum early on. In 1999 there was a big straw poll contest in Iowa, and Bush wiped out the opposition. That was a real test of how many grassroots people you could get to come to the state fair. Huge amounts of money were invested in it, and Bush won it decisively. And Karl knew how to build up that momentum. His specialty is the Republican Party and a conservative base.
The McCain campaign, to a certain extent, I think came out of the blue at Karl, because Karl did not understand the independent electorate. And a lot of these primary states do not have party registration, and anybody can go vote in either primary. They have open primaries and closed primaries. Karl did great in the closed primary states or caucus states. The open ones -- Michigan, New Hampshire -- he had big trouble.
And that was because there was a surge coming in for McCain that McCain knew how to tap into, of independent and Democratic voters, lots of them, who came in because they really liked this guy McCain -- his outspokenness, his competence. He didn't like the religious right. He was playing cards that within the Republican constituency would have been fatal to play, and did turn out to be fatal in the long run. And I think Karl did not know about that until the polls started showing it clearly, coming in New Hampshire. And they didn't know how big it was going to be. It was something in the range of like  points that McCain won; it was a blowout.
The huge advantage Karl had was that the next event was a closed primary, and in the closed primary, Karl knew how to work that. It was South Carolina, and he in a week and a half pushed McCain's numbers down from way up in South Carolina to losing. And that's because he knew how to work through a Republican core constituency and do it masterfully. And basically by winning South Carolina -- although McCain won some later contests -- that took the air out of McCain from that point on.
You said "masterfully." Somebody pushed a lot of negative buttons down in South Carolina -- the thing about the black child, the thing about his wife's drug abuse, the thing about McCain himself being mentally ill. ... He also pushed Bob Jones University and a lot of other things. Is the dark side of Karl Rove what we were witnessing here?
You can call it the dark side of Karl Rove. A lot of the Republican consultants that he's seen who have come up -- Lee Atwater, Karl, Charlie Black, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, a whole university -- these guys all came out of the College Republicans. College Republicans is a training ground. It's a place where you win elections, and that's what the whole thing was. All these guys were in the competitive campaigns for the chairmanship of the College Republicans, either as candidates or as running their party's campaigns.
It's what they call in the Republican Party politics, "sandbox politics." You don't run on platforms you believe in; you run on how you're going to mechanically win this one by virtually any means you can figure out. If it means finding some guy that seduced a woman at a key college who controls the College Republicans there, do it. ...
Karl came out of that, and he knows that side of stuff. To get to South Carolina, I think the crucial thing he did there was the way that was done. I can't say that Karl specifically engineered it, but there was an event held at some small town on a courthouse steps where a bunch of military types endorsed Bush, the generals and so forth. One guy was from some strange Vietnam group, a marginal group. This was not a really credible person -- it was a person viewed on the margins -- but he accused McCain of selling out his fellow POWs and really bad things. Somehow some of that got into print or on TV and McCain saw it. And McCain blew up; he lost his cool. And at that point, McCain then went after Bush and accused him of being Clintonesque in his willingness to be devious.
Now, that was going way beyond the pale in Republican circles, which Karl knew. You can say anything -- you're not conservative enough; you supported high taxes -- but to say you're like Clinton, that's breaking Republican rules, and that's just terrible. That opened the door to Bush to just go after McCain, denounce him and sort of push him into a liberal corner in the way the dynamics of these things worked.
And it proved very effective, and basically McCain and his top media consultant, Michael Murphy, fell for this. And one of the real tricks that Karl Rove has shown is not just from -- not dirty tricks, but sucker punches in a sense, or getting guys to fall for a feint. And you saw this in the last campaign with Kerry, where Kerry ends up answering questions about what he would do now about Iraq that were really forced on him about the Bush campaign.
The Bush campaign thought he would just never answer them, or that he would answer them in other ways that would have been more hurtful to Bush. But instead, to quote those guys, "Kerry fell into the trap," and he did it a number of times. And they were very surprised at how easily Kerry did fall for these carefully designed attempts to get him to say something that will hurt his own campaign. ...
This phrase, "compassionate conservative," does Rove deserve the credit for inventing it first?
If he didn't invent it, he certainly figured out a lot of how to elaborate on it and to put other Bush agenda items under that rubric. One of the real goals that Karl had was to take the compassionate conservative theme in 2000 and to focus on education as a big issue and to reduce Bush's liability and the Republican Party's liability on education as an issue.
One of the things a lot of polling does is ask people, "Would you trust the Republicans or the Democrats, Bush or Kerry, Bush or Gore, more on defense, more on taxes and more on education?" Education is a major issue. Bush very successfully in the 2000 campaign pushed up Republican credibility really among the electorate on the education issue and I think close to achieved parity with Gore and the [Democratic] Party on the education issue. That's a hard thing to do, because it's not known as a Republican issue. But he did pull it off in public polling. …
And then with the faith-based initiative, to have the "armies of compassion" to go out and provide services to the poor -- again, a lot of that was in part guided by Karl, though it certainly didn't conflict with anything that Bush himself sought or wanted. …
Guys like Mehlman and all the Rove team, what are they doing during the 2000 recount? Are they getting ready for a presidency? Are they managing expectations? What are they doing?
Well, you've got a huge number of people down in Florida on both sides. They are basically at virtually every county voting process. Where there's any recount thing, they have people assigned to every county to watch what they're doing. And they have a huge spin room, or a daily -- for every day you have to come out and talk to the press, whatever the case was that day. Here's an undecided presidential election; you need a tough, forthright position, and quite aggressive. …
The Bush people played really very tough. If you recall, the Miami-Dade people were just beginning their recount, and under the guidance of a New York congressman and a lot of Republican operatives, many members of the Miami Cuban community invaded those offices and had what was effectively a mini-riot there, and they forced the recount to stop. This was no-kidding-around kind of politics. I doubt the Gore people would have had the nerve to try to pull off something like that.
Do you feel Rove's hand in any of that?
You can feel it, but you don't know it. That was a purely lucky thing that that whole thing came out, because by chance, a very conservative columnist on The Wall Street Journal was with this whole crowd, on the crowd side of things with the New York congressman, and he ended up writing a very interesting piece, op-ed piece, just describing it for The Wall Street Journal. Otherwise a lot of the media basically missed it -- and including us. We missed it totally.
And it was a key turning point in the process. Stopping that Miami-Dade recount, that put a stop to a process that could have gotten out of hand for the Republicans. And they just killed it. And whether Karl was masterfully overseeing that, I don't know. I wouldn't rule it out, but I can't rule it in.
When they finally win and they come to Washington ... where is Karl Rove once the administration gets up to speed?
He gets a very good office very near the president and has full access. Clearly his dominant political role transfers over to the administration where he is the dominant adviser to the president. Karen Hughes is there as some competition, but Karl is the main player. …
And what's pretty striking -- and I don't know how much Karl had to do with this -- is they were pretty effective bringing in transition teams right away to bring about changes in all the agencies, to get them to start thinking very quickly after all this delay over who to bring in, not just as Cabinet guys, but sub-Cabinet, and all the whole network of political appointees. ... They also used it effectively to put their own political people in. And as I understand it, the Cabinet secretaries got much less discretion over who they would hire for a lot of their positions, and the White House controlled, or certainly cleared, a lot of those positions. And a lot of secretaries had to hire people that, in past administrations, might have been their choice.
And I'm sure Karl was involved in a lot of that personnel decision making. And he is a believer that policy and politics does come down to personnel in many ways, and you want people you can deal with in key positions. ...
He had no doubt that what many of these things were all about is, including his policy role, almost from the very beginning, or maybe from the very beginning, was about the 2004 election, and certainly the 2002 midterm elections.
Absolutely. They began planning the 2002 election immediately after taking office. They made fundamental decisions; they recognized, even before 9/11 occurred, in the opening months, that the president -- especially with his tax policies and Israel, he was adopting pretty conservative policies early on -- that he was going to be a polarizing president, and they made basic strategic decisions about the campaign at that point.
They made this decision that there was going to only be a 7 percent swing vote. Given that, it was much more important to shift the focus from past focuses on persuasion -- that's traditionally what you do, is try to persuade people -- and switch it to motivation. In the past, 70 to 80 to 90 percent of the money in a campaign would go to persuasion. They switched that to 50-50, with 50 percent going to motivation of your own people, but ones who are not getting out there to vote, either because they're not registered or because they're just too lazy.
And you motivate them how? You motivate them with what, policy?
Partly policy. They were also paying for it this time. They wanted to find out, how do you find these people? Traditional Republican targeting had been, "Let's send out mail to people who live in precincts that vote 65 percent Republican." That way you figure at least six to seven of every piece of mail is going to a Republican, and only 35 percent wastage.
But further analyzing that, they found that only 15 percent of all Republicans live in such precincts; 85 percent live in other ones. And this was even worse when they were looking for what they call these soft Republicans, who were either unregistered or unreliable voters. Almost none of those live in high-density Republican precincts, so they had to figure out how to get to these guys.
They then took Nielsen lists and then consumer data lists. You can buy all kinds of lists of how you use your American Express card and VISA card. Every time you swipe it, it goes into a data bank. And what you buy, what your habits [are] -- they then would get those lists for people. You have 200 million people on these lists that you can buy. You then survey these lists politically and find out who is a Republican.
Then you do correlations on -- for example, people who have caller ID on their phones tend to be Republicans. People who drink Coors beer tend to be Republicans. People who watch Fox News tend very much to be Republican. You get all these flags, and with actual millions of people because of these things, and then you would find ways to then start targeting people, no matter where they lived. ...
This anger point -- in surveys they want to find out what is it that gets these people to steam up, that really would make them angry enough that they'll actually get off their butt and go vote. And they would try to press these people in these surveys on all the things that the Bush campaign was running on. They'd sort of run by all these themes. Do any of these work? And do any of them turn out to be eights, nines or 10s on your anger level? And they did all the statistics -- a lot of work, because you have to test this stuff; you have to then rerun the list to make sure that they're still accurate, because they're always out of date, yada yada yada. It's a very expensive, time-consuming process. …
There was constant refinement and working all towards 2004 of developing these lists, all this merging of data and combining it, all towards the goal of trying to identify different kinds of target constituencies and how actually to get those people to vote. What kind of messages would work? Do you do it over Fox News? You do it through Fox News. You do it through direct mail. You do it through, if you can, getting someone who knows, who's a member of their gun club to call them, all this stuff. They collect lists and lists and lists of local gun clubs, of local churches, and they would try to find Bush supporters in a given church, in a given gun club, who would be willing to actually become what amounted to precinct chairmen. They would be the gun club chairmen in a sense, or the church chairmen.
And [then] they tried to get the same messages going through every possible medium that they could find, and they -- I mean, this is sort of the untold part of this campaign. It never got out in what we explored of how they just worked and worked and worked at this thing. And it all grew out of a strategy that Rove mapped out and Mehlman worked out in mid-2001, early 2002. And they stuck with that strategy and carried it right out, all the way through to Election Day this year.
So this is metrics?
Absolutely. That's the word they use all the time. Everything is a metric, and they're always measuring. ...
In your career as a political reporter, have you ever seen anything like this, at this level of detail and understanding of the electorate, and breaking down the electorate this way and going after it?
No. But in fairness, it's a technological advance, and they're capitalizing. So it's always whatever is being done now is better than in the past. But what I would say is these guys have put more attention, detail, time, money, resources and thinking into this than any other campaign, Democrat or Republican, that I've seen. They really believe that to find the people they want, they want to use every possible technique that works.
That means testing and experimenting, forking over some money on "Let's try this out. If it works, what can we do to improve it? If it doesn't work, we've lost money on that, but [let's] move on." It took a whole lot of money, and they had money. That was a very important advantage that they had. Basically starting in 2001, they had a lot of money at the RNC. I think $293 million they raised in that election cycle, and then on to the Bush campaign, and then the Republican Party in this cycle, 2003-2004.
But they also have the smarts to think this through. And they also created a whole marketplace for the guys, the techno-nerds who think about these things but don't know what to do with it. Here's this sudden place that wants to buy ideas and techniques, and these guys started coming in and they make proposals. And a lot of the early work involved having guys come in and filtering through all these proposals, what sounded reasonable, doable. And they came up with some pretty fancy stuff. ...
Now, I think we are in danger of making it all sound incredibly mechanical. There happens to be about it as well, the stardust of the candidate himself, and the, I suppose, effective use of … bypassing the national media, going primarily to local media where you really get a lot of TV play or your message directly delivered as a headline without buying ads or advertising. How sophisticated were they at that time?
Well, the whole campaign was geared towards a small-market constituent in terms of TV marketers. Or they were going to exurban small towns, which is where they thought they could drive up the percentage of Republican vote the highest. Through all the values issues, tax issues, the sort of dislike of a Massachusetts elite Democrat like Kerry, to capitalize on this campaign's environment, they saw that area as the best area to go in.
So they were going to places that never saw presidential candidates before, that to a normal campaign would seem kind of weird, because why would you go to a community of 27,000 people, even though you might draw in a big crowd from all these dinky little towns around it? Usually you go where the people are, and this was not doing that. This was circling around, and there [were] a lot of bus tours because of that.
But what was important also was not just that they were doing that, but they were trying to mesh that with their media. They spent $20 million on cable and radio, which for the Republican Party is unprecedented. And they picked local talk shows. They decided, and I think someone correctly did, that their voters, the people who are likely to vote for them, distrust the major media. ... So they went after the radio stations where local people would be listening because they felt that talk person was someone who communicated at their level, and they would be more receptive to that message. So they would run the ad on the talk radio station or on cable talk shows.
And all [were] targeted, unusually, to heavily Republican constituencies, not to swing voters so much, but to basically strongly Republican people, because they wanted to build on that Republican base. And again, these are people who listen to these small talk radio shows and religious shows and country-and-western shows on the radio, who tend to live outside the cities, more in the rural areas and more in the small-town, kind of exurban areas. …
... What was Swift Boats all about?
What's interesting is that both the Swift Boats and the other major Republican independent group that they call 527s -- there was a group called Progress for America -- they both ran very effective television ads. I think the Progress for America ran one called "Ashley's Story." ...
Both Progress for America and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were run, in part, out of a lobbying shop DCI, Inc., I think it's called, or DCI Group here in Washington, but with offices around the country that has had close ties to the Bush organization over the years. And one of the people who has been a principal in that, Tony Feather, was the political chief in the 2000 campaign, and in this last campaign he was running much of the direct mail. …
No one knows whether there was coordination or not; they all deny there was coordination. But these are people who know how Karl Rove and the Republican Party thinks, because they are very successful Republican Party strategists themselves who have in many cases worked directly with Rove in campaigns. So they would know how he thinks and what would be useful in a campaign.
One of them picked the really negative Swift Boat ads; the other one did an extraordinarily positive ad that brought tears to the eyes of Republicans: Bush embracing this 11-year-old girl, Ashley, whose mother had been killed in 9/11. They both came at perfect junctures in the campaign. When Bush needed the compassion, at the end, when he'd been running all his own negative stuff, along comes the Ashley ad. The Swift Boats come along right after Kerry had done all this stuff to build himself up as the tough guy, a Vietnam veteran. They come in and accuse him of lying and illegitimately getting his medals. Those were very well-timed, perfect ads. …
But the theory was that … [the 527s] would not be given direction or receive any kind of input from the actual campaigns themselves.
Yes, the law prohibits them from coordinating with, planning any kind of joint venture basically with the campaign or with the parties. So they are supposed to be doing things totally autonomous from the campaigns. Although anyone who would be following the campaign could pick up what the direction it was going in, and probably what was needed.
It was difficult on the Democratic side because Kerry didn't really get off the ground once he'd won the nomination back in March. It took him about six weeks before he started advertising. So his 527s had no real signals from the campaign of what it was that they wanted. What they wanted was pro-Kerry ads. What they got were anti-Bush ads which they say didn't help that much.
With the Bush campaign it was clear what they wanted was anti. They went negative on Kerry immediately as soon as he won the nomination in a big way. So when the Republican 527s became active, they knew what to do. And certainly the Swift Boat people were very effective in what they did. …
Where are you [when you hear the first exit polls on Election Day 2004], and what do you think?
I'm in Washington, looking at the same exit polls. The first wave, it's doubtful, but usually the past elections' exit polls have been quite predictive of outcomes. And certainly the first wave, everyone discounts it, but they have not been that inaccurate. And second waves have been pretty solidly predictive. But I think the second wave came in around 4:30 or 5:00, and it still looked solid Kerry, with Ohio and Florida going his way.
And at the same time, though, the Bush campaign was in high gear, getting actual results of data, that were turnout data from Florida in particular. And Ohio is harder, but down in Florida they had Jeb Bush and the whole machine that knew how to get this stuff. And they were getting information suggesting that they were more than achieving their turnout goals, and it could not be the kind of numbers that were showing up in the exit polls.
And I think they learned, they calculated or somehow realized -- they saw that there were way too many women -- there were, like, 59 percent women -- and that it was getting skewed that way. And they also calculated that the people who were willing to talk to exit poll people, do the exit poll, tended to be Democrats, and Republicans were turning down the opportunity. So the sample was getting skewed by sort of a self-selection of the respondents.
And I think they started becoming more confident, from what they say, around 7:00, 8:00, just as the third wave, which did confirm their view that they were winning, was coming in. ...
When did you know that he won?
I would say at 8:30, 9:00, it was pretty convincing.
Why did he win?
I think this was an election that was won by a very effective campaign. Kerry was not a great opponent, but he wasn't bad; he ran a good campaign. And there were all these other groups that will turn out and do things that were also pretty good. But I think this was not a realigning electorate, but a political victory. It was very close. The Republicans did everything they could to get every possible voter they could get out, and they did a better job of it than the Democrats in the end. ...
There were a lot of advantages the Republicans had. They had the incumbency; they had an assured flow of money; they had time. The Kerry campaign didn't start planning for the general election until after they'd won the nomination on March 2, 2004.
The Bush campaign started planning, really planning, and spending in January and February of 2001. That's three-plus years ahead of time. And they had much more early money to play with. They had the elections of 2002 and 2003 to use as testing grounds against the Democrats. The Democratic Party was just trying to catch up at that point moneywise, and on just developing basic voter lists, the Republican Party was a quantum jump ahead of that in trying to push it even farther.
They had advantages, but they took advantage around that. And it's hard to think of a substantial, strategic or tactical error that they committed in this campaign. And they had some rough sledding. They had the Iraq prison problems; they had all the doubts about the Iraq war; they had an anemic-ish economy, especially in some of the key battleground states.
It wasn't golden for Bush, and they did as well as they could with it, which is what a campaign does, as opposed to the quality of governing and so forth. They took what they had and made the absolute best of it. And they did better with what they had than what the Democrats did with what they had.
So when we look at this arc from Goldwater to 2006, and certainly 2008 ... some people are saying this is validation of that notion, and that most of America is red, and some of America is purple, but almost none of America is blue. Not true?
I would say not true. I think that the arc has been moving overall, from 1964 to 2004, in favor of the conservative and Republican movements. I think there's no question that the trend line has been upward steadily by almost every measure. Whether it's achieved dominance -- it certainly has not achieved the kind of dominance that the New Deal coalition had achieved after 1932, all the way to the post-World War II period, where there was a clear Democratic majority, where over 50 percent of the people identified as Democrats and only 25 percent of the people said they were Republicans. ...
We haven't reversed that, although the Republican Party has, does dominate the agenda and does dominate government. So we're close, but it ain't there. …
And how successfully Bush governs over these next four years and how well Karl Rove guides that governance will be very important factors. And they both -- especially Karl, though -- believe that the Republican Party has a legacy they want to leave, a successful Republican Party. Karl is, if nothing else, you can say a deep Republican to his core, and he is a deep believer in the party. He wants to see that party successful. But God knows what's going to be the reality, but his dice are rolling for that party. ...
The big upside for them was the election machine worked so effectively. And so I suppose the real question is, as they find themselves in 2006 and 2008 and the agenda, Social Security, tort reform, whatever it is, really the machine can be used to prosecute the agenda, the policy agenda. And that's really the great result of the re-election, I suppose?
I think they have built a very strong machine stretching all the way across the spectrum from fully consolidating the lobbying community here in Washington, the conservative think tank community, these 527 groups like Progress for America. His whole network of donors and activists that they built up in the campaign, all these now become tools for promoting the legislative agenda, and they've become used again in 2006, and presumably in 2008, depending on who the presidential candidate is. But the mechanics are now there for a very effective and very fully thought-out kind of group, in the sense that they know what they want to do is to advance both the Republican agenda and Republican interest groups, and they want to damage and undermine Democratic interest groups. They want to hurt trial lawyers; they want to hurt public employee unions; they want to hurt unions generally. They want to undermine the whole domestic social welfare state. They want to break the tie between government and its citizens that FDR created.
They have a pretty coherent, solid agenda that works both legislatively and works to build up the party and to undermine the enemy. It's a very effective and strong and impressive group.
Do you have any doubt that part of the creation, organization of that machine going all the way back to the year 2000 had in mind this moment?
I think it goes way back before 2000. There's been a drive since the Reagan years, and really earlier than that, but Reagan is when power first came to conservativism to de-fund the left, and to use the power of budget cutting to eliminate programs that benefited Planned Parenthood, that benefited all kinds of left institutions that were getting grants, the flow of money through HUD, all these programs. So that idea of attacking the Democratic left and weakening its power has been one that's been quite consistent.
Reagan's anti-union activities were very effective, and you saw a decline in union membership during the Reagan years, where it had been going down like this, and suddenly it takes a nosedive, so that this has been an ongoing program for what now, 25 years. Clearly this is what the 2004 election is, is really another step in it, but it's a big step. Here we've got Bush who's willing to go after Social Security, which Reagan had never done. He's been pressing a social conservative agenda on abortion and stem cell research, gay marriage issues that Reagan also was unwilling to go after.
He has combined both the economic right and the social conservative right. Bush has done that far more effectively than any predecessor. So this whole movement has advanced quite a ways.
How did he do it?
Well, part of it is the basic weakness of the Democratic Party. When you have an adversary that produces nominees of questionable value, in both Gore and Kerry, you're not strongly challenged. Also, the Democratic Party has remained vulnerable to being portrayed as the party of special interests under both those nominees so that the enemy is a lot weaker. So you can win if you've got a lousy enemy.
But I think also that the Republican Party has over these years, the past -- really longer than this, 1980, starting back in the Goldwater days, but moving on up -- there's been a willingness to accept a corporate structure, a hierarchy with a real corporate agenda, and that people who were very smart at the top set the overall planning, and people all the way down the ladder followed that.
The Democratic Party, in contrast, is really a bunch of competitive interests, where the willingness to subordinate to the larger goal is much less. ...
Once the election is over ... they decide to take on the subject everybody called the third rail of politics. Why Social Security?
Social Security is the centerpiece of the Democratic Party of liberalism, of the whole New Deal coalition, the Depression-era change in the whole climate of politics in this country. And it's what produced a tie between every working person -- not just poor people on welfare or whatever -- it's the universal linkage between government on the one side and the citizen on the other. The government will provide some form of pension in the closing years of life. …
I think the strategy now is try to change Social Security -- if it worked, the idea would be that it would not be a third rail, but to alter it in a way so that the citizen, the recipient, becomes independent by getting some one-third of the amount of money going to him or her that would be available to put into some form of private account. That would separate, at least for that one-third, the citizen from government and make the citizen think about what's happening in the stock market, what's happening in the bond market, all the things that then Republicans believe will encourage them to think like Republicans. …
Why would they go forward? I know there was a tax cut, but they don't seem like guys who would go kind of foolhardily into these kind of things.
I think George Bush has been a high-risk president from the word go. He has not pussyfooted around. The way he handled the Iraq invasion, that was a high-risk proposition. And who knows how it's going to pan out ultimately, although he certainly got a big boost out of the election results there.
His tax cuts, those are a high-risk proposition at a time when the dollar is going down in value, when the deficits are ballooning, and he's just rocking and rolling on this premise that he can keep aggressively producing revenues coming in. The Bush administration has not been one to be cautious, in contrast to his father. ...
Are they actually trying to lay down a gigantic footprint, a big legacy moment? Is this Rove and Bush saying, "Here's one for the record books"?
I think what they want to do is one, have a gigantic legislative footprint altering the tax structure, Social Security, energy policy and health policy in big ways, basically shifting from government regulation and subsidy and support to much more free market on the regulatory side, and some form of individual accounts to provide the services that have been provided by government.
They also want to basically force a realignment, to use the power of incumbency, the power of being in office, and having a majority, to do as much as possible to build the institutions that will support a majority Republican Party, ultimately, and will reduce the Democratic Party to further minority status. And they want to basically muscle that through.
I don't say that critically. This is what politicians do. But, this group is doing it really very effectively and very aggressively, and more coherently than anything I have seen in decades and decades. I think what they are trying to do is bigger than the Great Society and approaches the New Deal. They aren't kidding around. But, they are trying to do it under circumstances that are using political leverage as opposed to a crisis and a mandate from the people. It's a very different strategy. And it may be the kind of strategy that given this new polarized electorate we have, the polarized system we have, is the rational strategy to adopt.
It certainly has taken Democrats by surprise in a sense. They don't really have a coherent way of dealing with this. They're really not prepared for this. …