Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
homemastermindrepublicansdiscussion

"playing for history…"
How far do Karl Rove and George W. Bush want to take the Republican Party, and the country, in realigning the relationship between government and citizen? Here, discussing this question, are: Washington Post reporters Thomas Edsall and Dan Balz, Republican activist Grover Norquist, the former and current heads of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie and Ken Mehlman, journalist Wayne Slater and former Environmental Protection Agency head and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman.

photo of norquist

Grover norquist
Republican activist, president Americans for Tax Reform

read the full interview

…The Bush administration for the next four years has two tracks. One [is] the small things for which the votes are there -- some tort reform, some tax reduction, some spending restraint. Those all create more Republicans and fewer Democrats at one level.

And then there's several big-picture items: Social Security reform, turning every American into a shareholder and owning his own personal savings accounts; tax reform, not just cutting taxes but massively reducing the tax burden and simplification; immigration reform.

Those three big ones, they're so large that it may not be possible to do one or any of them in four years. The other team could filibuster. It might be possible to do them all. It's possible to do part of them. ... But all of the steps over the next four years that Bush is pushing gets you closer to that, make[s] it more possible. And maybe it happens in the next four years. I'm not suggesting it can't happen. But I think it's almost certain to happen in the next five or six if we don't get within four. And Bush is playing for history and will be remembered as the guy who reformed Social Security and made America an ownership society, and he will be remembered as that, even if the next president signs the bill.

Related Links

photo of edsall

thomas edsall
Reporter, Washington Post

read the full interview

I think what [Rove and Bush] 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. …

photo of gillespie

Ed gillespie
Chairman, Republican National Committee (2003-2005)

read the full interview

… Karl conceived of an election that was designed to bring more people into our party, designed to increase our percentages in nontraditional Republican voting demographics, like Hispanic voters and women and African Americans, where we had a sizable gain, and at the same time enfranchise more naturally Republican voters and "lazy Republicans," as we call them in the parlance, into the process and get them out to vote, and do that with a bottom-up structure, a grassroots structure. …

Are the president and Karl Rove looking forward, planning for [the future] of Republican Party [beyond the next midterm elections]?

Well, again, I don't want to speak for Karl or for the president. That's not my job as a party chairman -- certainly not as an outgoing party chairman, especially. But there is a sense among us, many of us who are in leadership positions in the Republican Party, that we have a unique opportunity, that we can build on the gains we made with traditionally non-Republican voting groups.

We increased our share of the Jewish vote from 19 percent to 24 percent. I think we can go further. We increased our share of the Hispanic vote from 35 percent to 44 percent. I think we can go further. We increased our share of the African American vote from 8.5 percent to 11 percent. I think we can go much further. I think we can double that here in a very short time frame. So I think the key for us is not only to continue to maintain energy amongst our rank-and-file Republicans, but to bring more people into the party. I believe the Republican Party today is the natural majority party. It won't always be.

Karl talks about a durable majority, not a permanent majority. The fact is, the two-party system serves our country well. I'm a strong believer in the two-party system. I think the Democratic Party makes us better as a party, and we make them better as a party. …

One of the political scientists ... said, "You go through periods in the American political process where one party is the sun party and the other party is the moon party, and the moon party tends to gravitate around the sun party." We're in a period where the Republican Party is the sun party and the Democratic Party is the moon party. There was a long period, starting with Franklin Roosevelt through LBJ, where the Democratic Party was the sun party and the Republican Party was the moon party. But where we are today I think is that our party is the natural governing majority for most Americans and will stay that way for the foreseeable future.

photo of balz

Dan Balz
Reporter, Washington Post

read the full interview

… 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, [Social Security reform] 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. ...

photo of slater

Wayne slater
Senior political writer, Dallas Morning-News

read the full interview

…Karl Rove's model is beyond electing and re-electing George Bush. It is building a Republican Party not simply for years, but for decades. It is the McKinley model. It is the Roosevelt model. It is decades and decades of fundamental realignment of our government. To do that, in part, you have to build a base of supporters, and no one is more important in this base than conservative evangelicals for a Christian, a conservative like George Bush, and [the] Republican Party, who can use this group very successfully as part of its political base. But the danger is that there's only so big your party can go if you begin to look, as the Republican Party sometimes has in the past, as intolerant and mean-spirited.

So it's difficult to see what the future is, but Karl understands on the one hand you have to push the opposition to the gay rights issue, but you can't do it in a way that makes you look intolerant. You have to push issues that are important on abortion and marriage and stem cells, but do it in a way that restores and keeps the compassionate conservative theme. It's a balancing act and a juggling act, and the success of this will really dictate the future of the Republican Party.

photo of whitman

christine todd whitman
Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency (2001-2003); governor of New Jersey (1993-2000)

read the full interview

Is it your sense that ... they really are hopeful about laying down a Republican legacy for a long, long time? ...

…I think the president really wants to leave a policy legacy. He wants to leave it internationally, and he wants to leave it domestically, and he always has. That's been his focus. It's interesting; Bob Novak wrote a column not too long ago saying, "Is the president moving to the middle?," as if that was the worst thing he could say, saying that there were all these signs from things that the White House had been saying that they might be trying to move to the middle. And that was scaring the conservatives.

That's ridiculous. This is their president. He is probably, as I indicated in the book, the most conservative president on social issues that I've known. But I still support him because of the other issues that are out there. The litmus test is going to get very, very hard for even the president to meet. And it's going to thwart what I believe is a sincere desire on his part to leave an important legacy in policy issues.

photo of mehlman

ken mehlman
Chairman, Republican National Committee (2005-present); campaign manager, Bush-Cheney 2004

read the full interview

…There was a very methodical effort over the last four years to say: "How do we grow the electorate in a way that is beneficial to the president? And how do we bring new folks into the cause, and how do we make sure that our political tactics are the most effective they can be?" We used the '01 and '02 elections to test those tactics for '04. …

When you're political director, when you're out there, your ears to the ground, you're hearing movements, and there's things you want. You want Hispanic voters; you want women enfranchised; you want to find something for African Americans. Are you pushing back in terms of the policy side of Rove's operation to say, "Let's think about the things that will help"?

Sure, absolutely.

What are those things?

Well, there's lots of examples of those things. Education issues: No Child Left Behind was a very important thing that I think helped us explain to people this president's commitment to close the gap between minority and nonminority students. A home ownership initiative that says, for the first time ever, we're going to make sure that African Americans and Latino Americans don't have a lower ownership gap than Anglo Americans do. The tax relief, which says to an increasing majority of Americans: Own stock and investments, we're not going to double-tax you on that; that's wrong. It says to farmers, you can pass on your estate or your farm to your child if you want to; you don't have to sell it in the process. To small-business people, who are tired of excessive and out-of-control lawsuits. So all of these. …

The role of the religious constituency -- it seems to me it's not the Moral Majority leading something; it's not Pat Robertson doing it; it's happening out there kind of independently. This goes, I guess, back to 2000 even.

We knew that we're seeing about 80 percent of people who are religious conservatives, which include folks that are committed Christians; it includes Orthodox Jews; it includes folks from a number of different denominations. But obviously expanding that part of the electorate is very important. And as I mentioned in the beginning, this is a part of the electorate that, before the '70s, wasn't even really involved in politics.

And certainly I think that there are millions of Americans who genuinely worry about a coarsening culture and who genuinely worry about the most vulnerable and weak in our society. And the president, I believe and they believe, has policies to protect the most weak and vulnerable in our society and has certainly publicly talked about a responsibility era, [in] which people take responsibility, including those people who have coarsened the culture. And I think that if you look at those policies, earning their support was very important to us.

So do you know in 2004 that you've got those people in the bases?

Well, you know from polling and other things that the base is very united. George W. Bush went into this 2004 election with consistent support among Republicans and among conservatives, over 90 percent, larger than anyone's had since Ronald Reagan in '84, larger than Ronald Reagan in '84. And importantly, that base, our base, Republicans and conservatives, constitute a larger proportion of the electorate in '04 than they did 20 years before, in 1984.

I know a lot of the press was mocking the idea of a base strategy.

The press, unfortunately for them, believes that it's zero-sum, that it's either a base or a swing strategy. And the fact is, we appeal to both. As I said, from a base perspective, conservatives increased their participation level as a proportion of the electorate. Republicans were for the first time ever equal to Democrats in their participation level of the electorate. At the same time, 44 percent of the Latino vote, the highest ever.

We improved our performance among people that live in big cities by 13 points, from 26 to 39 percent. African Americans go up, Jewish Americans go up, women go up. Across the political spectrum, we not only appealed to the red areas, making them redder, but we turned a lot of blue areas purple. ...

Let's talk a little bit about '06 and what's coming.

'06 is a big challenge for the president and the president's party. The president's party typically loses 29 seats in the House and about 10 seats in the Senate in their last midterm. Obviously our mission and our goal is to take the challenge of '06 and turn it into an opportunity, just like we did in '02, and one of the ways we're going to try to do that is to work with the campaigns in '06 to make available to them many of the same tactics that we used in '04 out of the Republican National Committee.

And our mission is also, I believe -- good policy being good politics -- to over the next two years accomplish a lot of our legislative agenda accomplishments, which will help us in '06 as well.

[What is your legislative agenda?]

Social Security reform, tort reform, tax reform -- all are important. Taking the gains we made in education K-8th grade and applying it through high school graduation. An energy bill for the country that moves us off of dependence on foreign oil, increasing both production and also increasing conservation here at home. All of those are examples. …

And what is the single thing you're worried the most about?

I don't know if I'm worried about things. The single thing I'm most committed to doing is to help enact the agenda that this president and this majority were elected to do; secondly, to institutionalize within the party and within other campaigns what we did in 2004; and third is to expand our majority and to grow our party, to make sure we continue to do better among African Americans, among Latino Americans, among Asian Americans, among people that live in big cities -- to explain to people why this party, the party of the open door, offers a vision for a safer America, for a more prosperous America and for an America where people in their own communities can decide what's best for them rather than being told what to do by Washington.

home · introduction · the mastermind · republican party · interviews
texas · join the discussion · producer's chat · teacher's guide
tapes & transcript · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted april 12, 2005

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Prison StateApril 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS