Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
photo of mike allen
interviews: mike allen
People say Social Security is too big; it's too complicated. It's just that that makes it attractive to the president and to Karl Rove.

Tell me about first time you remember seeing Karl Rove.

What surprises you about Karl Rove is how nondescript and low-key he is. He's the last person to slip into the room before the president. He's in the back. He's quiet. He's usually talking to someone. The time that we usually see him in person on the campaign is walking down the front steps of Air Force One. They all wait for the president; he walks down; [the photographers] take the shot; and then the senior staff walks down. ...

You see Karl Rove walking down the stairs right behind the president. There's always local political officials there to greet him, and Karl knows all of them. He's as big an attraction as the president. Everyone wants a picture taken with Karl Rove.

What had you heard about him before you'd actually met him?

Well, people attribute everything good and bad in their mind that this administration does to Karl Rove. Mr. Rove recognizes that it has a certain use for the president. He gets blamed for things that otherwise the president might [get blamed for]. Now, quite often he's behind those things, but not always.

Like what?

When the president was giving his victory speech -- his acceptance speech, as the White House called it -- he described Mr. Rove simply as "the architect." And everyone in the room knew what that meant. He was the architect of the public policies that got them there. He was the architect of the campaign platform. He was the architect of the fund-raising strategy. He was the architect of the state-by-state strategy. He was the architect of the travel itinerary. His hand was in all of it.

You've seen it all the last four years. Do you agree with that assessment of Rove's power and sway?

What gives Karl Rove unusual sway is that his portfolio includes both the public policy and the political strategy. Most people are surprised to find that Mr. Rove is a government official. His title is senior adviser to the president. He's paid by the taxpayer, and yet he's in charge of the political aspect as well.

A staff writer for The Washington Post, Allen covered the White House during George W. Bush's first term as president. In this interview, he explains why President Bush calls Karl Rove "the architect:" "He was the architect of the public policies that got them there. He was the architect of the campaign platform. He was the architect of the fund-raising strategy. He was the architect of the state-by-state strategy. He was the architect of the travel itinerary. His hand was in all of it." He talks about the differences between Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns. "What's interesting was the compassionate conservative rhetoric was very important in 2000," he says. "You didn't hear a lot of it in 2004." Allen, who currently covers Capitol Hill, also describes how Rove and Bush plan to mobilize the grassroots operation they built up during the presidential campaigns to sell their agenda, including Social Security reform. This is an edited transcript of two interviews conducted on Jan. 6 and Feb. 1, 2005.

The other best-known political strategists -- Lee Atwater, James Carville -- they stopped where the White House began. In most cases, the political strategist's power stops when the campaign stops. With Mr. Rove, it's just the beginning. He's the gatekeeper to the agenda. He's the gatekeeper to the president.

One of the myths about Karl is that he makes the decisions. You talk to people in the White House, and there's no question about who really makes the decisions. In the end it is the president, but Karl Rove performs the important gatekeeping function. He narrows down the topics that will be discussed with the president. He narrows down the policies that will be brought to the president. He and others -- you have to count in [Chief of Staff] Andy Card and [Counselor to the President] Dan Bartlett and Condi Rice -- there's five or six people who determine what the president ultimately sees.

You mean if I'm working in the White House, and I'm a senior adviser, and I want to get something before the president, then I go through Rove first?

No, Karl Rove is one of several gatekeepers to the president, and he's significant because his portfolio includes both politics and policy. The idea that he's the hidden hand in everything is a myth by people who don't understand that place. Andy Card, the chief of staff, determines a lot. And there are others. But one way to get things on the president's radar screen is to work through Karl.

So the way it might work, in a kind of gross generalization, is the vice president is on foreign policy and defense issues, Condi in her old role is on security ... and Andy [is] controlling the schedule, maybe more. What is Rove doing?

The way that I look at it is, these are people who have been together a long time and are very comfortable together. It's old friends around the table, and the lines of authority are very diffuse. So when you get five or six people in this inner circle, [they are] the only people who really matter, the only people who can really tell you what's going on, the only people who really know the trajectory of things. They talk among themselves. And there are the various formal routes for putting things in front of the president.

What is Rove and the president's personal relationship?

What's interesting about Mr. Rove and the president is Karl is always very careful to be subservient around him. There's no question about who's boss. Behind the scenes, every once in a while, you hear stories about the president reminding him who is the boss. There was some talk that Karl Rove and not the president was to be Time magazine's Man of the Year, and a couple of us were fantasizing about what the president would say when he was told that, and the winning answer was, "Oh, yeah?"

Are they friends?

People speculate on that just out of ignorance. It's not something that anyone on the outside can know for sure. They are friendly. One thing that will surprise you as you see Karl out and about, he's always smiling. He's the merry prankster. People think of him as Darth Vader -- not true at all. He's always the one that's going to be joking around on Air Force One. He enjoys playing around with the press. One time during an economic summit, he came over to my computer and sat down at my computer and started typing what he thought the lead should be, and I put it in my story because I realized that that was what they thought the event was about. But he teases the reporters, plays with their phones, plays with their computers. It's meant to be disarming. He knows what his image is. But behind the scenes, we're told he's fun. …

Is he out on spin control the way Karen Hughes always seemed to be and the way others are, or is he [a] presence kind of hanging back?

... Right. In 2000 she was usually around. Karen is now famous and important enough that she's almost a principal in her own right, and she does not come out and talk to the press very often. During the fall [2004] campaign, Karl started coming around the press quite a lot. For three and a half years he had operated largely invisibly, largely mysteriously. It was very much by design. But he started coming around in the fall. And what was very confusing to reporters is we never knew if that was because they thought things were going great or because they were really worried. You couldn't tell, because it was the same.

So during the events, while the president was talking, you usually had a choice of listening to the president or listening to Karl Rove. And of course we'd heard the president's speech, so a lot of times reporters listened to Karl Rove.

And what would he be saying?

Karl's a great show, and he can make precinct strategy in Ohio entertaining. Plus, we knew that it was important. Even though it was something that we had not mastered, he clearly had. One thing that you learn about this crew's approach to politics is that everything matters -- small things, big things. You could hear Karl talking about that. He could talk about the can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees strategy, and he would talk about a particular county.

Where does that come from? Why is he that way?

Karl Rove believes that politics is both an art and a science. The art part is familiar. The science part is where Democrats think that this president won, and that is the mastery of the construction of his massive volunteer force, the scientific precision with which the president's travel was determined and the very elaborate system they used of targeting precise potential voters. They looked at not just who their voters would be; they looked at who their voters should be and then went after those people.

How much of [their strategy] springs from Rove, and how much of it springs from the president?

Karl Rove is very passionate about history. You've heard him talk about the McKinley campaign. This White House pays a lot of attention to history, whether it's scheduling the date for the State of the Union address or the content of the State of the Union address. After 9/11, Karl studied World War II and what was done with bomb drives and what was done to mobilize the populace in those days.

So they looked at history to inform the decisions, and they're proud of the fact that they don't do things the way they're always done. They're proud of the fact that they always look at all the options for everything. They quickly choose the obvious option, but it's a big deal to them that they look outside the box and consider other things.

Let's take something like the State of the Union or even 9/11. Why does this level of detail matter to them?

Although it may not be conscious in their minds, a lot of these people learned about presidential politics from the first President Bush, and obviously, as I said, mistakes were made in that administration. The determination to avoid mistakes drives a lot of what is done around here. Of course, when you're playing not to lose, sometimes you don't win, either. I think that frustrates their allies sometimes. Sometimes their allies wish that they were doing things. But avoiding mistakes is a big part of their communications, the political, the public policy strategy.

You covered the 2000 campaign. ... Things like base strategy and [appealing to the conservative base], were they in play in 2000 as much as they were in play in 2004? Was Rove thinking base strategy, not the vital center, even back in 2000?

In 2000, it appears that they felt that there was more of a need or an opportunity to reach out to the middle -- the president styling himself as a compassionate conservative, a different kind of Republican: appearing in inner-city settings; appearing frequently with minority children. I think they felt that that was important to reassuring voters about President Bush. And as you know, that was not either the vocabulary or the approach that was taken in 2004.

Now, as far as the turnout strategy, targeting the [individual] states, you could look at 2000 as a dry run for 2004. 2000 was the starting point for some of those things. All of them were ramped up, rebuilt on a massive scale for 2004.

Was Rove a presence in 2000?

What was interesting about Karl Rove in 2000 was he wasn't often seen. He was in Austin at the campaign headquarters there on Congress Avenue with his maps looking at the states, whereas in 2004, he was out on the plate with the president during most of the ballgame. ...

[Chief campaign strategist] Matthew Dowd talked a lot about the idea that they really had an uphill struggle in the fall of 2000. ... What were they up against? And is that consistent with what you observed from the campaign trail?

The Bush people will tell you that they were blessed in both cases with weak opponents. And in both cases, one thing that was similar in the way that they attacked them is they took one vulnerability, repeatedly tagged their opponent, and their opponent fell for it every time. With Al Gore, you have the exaggerations. The campaign would point these out and play them out, and the vice president would say something or do something else that would play into that template.

With Sen. Kerry, way back in March [2004], as soon as he got the nomination, they had this template, "John Kerry says one thing, does another." And they could fit all of their attacks in it. And Sen. Kerry, from their point of view, seemed to take the bait again and again, giving them fresh meat. ... Senator Kerry [id] still being asked about Swift Boats. And whatever difference that made with voters, it made a colossal difference in the mechanics and the psychology of the campaigns. …

You mentioned compassionate conservatism. Where do compassionate conservatism and George Bush fall on the arc of [Sen. Barry] Goldwater, Reagan and the new Bush conservatism?

Well, what's interesting is the compassionate conservative rhetoric was very important in 2000. You didn't hear a lot of it in 2004. You'd hear the president talk about how we serve a higher purpose, helping a neighbor. … But I think people who care about this president found [a lack of] follow-through on his policies. I think that's one thing that disappointed so many people that came to Washington with him. It will be interesting to see if that's something that they re-address in 2004 as they look at their legacy.

What do you mean?

Then-Gov. Bush sold himself as a compassionate conservative, and partly because of the demands of 9/11, partly due to inattention, there was not as much follow-through on that agenda as some people who came to Washington with him had hoped.

And now? You think they'll re-address that?

No, [I think] it would be interesting to see if they will address it. They have not sent clear signals about that. As you know, the president said during his acceptance speech that he wanted to be the president of all the people, and he was going to make a special effort to reach people who had not voted for him. And since Nov. 3, they haven't said how they're going to do that.

Where were you on election night 2000, during the closest election in recent memory?

In 2000, I was in Austin prepared to cover a victory party. They blocked off a long outdoor plaza in Austin, and they set up television risers. There was a TV stand in front. They'd built a stage at the front. There was a tent for the reporters. There was food. And it was pouring rain. Everybody was soaked, and yet they stayed, they stayed, they stayed. The Bush crowd did believe that they were ahead. The Bush people believed that they were ahead by a lot. So people did believe there was going to be a victory party.

And it got later and later and more and more uncertain. ... Out there in the pouring rain, a TV producer learned that the outcome was disputed. The people in the crowd learned [that] from the giant CNN screens that had been set up there. And the campaign chairman, one of the president's closest friends, Don Evans, soon to be his secretary of commerce, came out and told people that there wouldn't be anything that night.

What had Rove and others been saying that day and in the days right prior to the election about the outcome?

In 2000, we thought they were super-confident. Since then, we've learned from talking to them that they wanted us to think that they were super-confident. I didn't realize how badly they had been hurt by the revelation that the president had gotten a DUI. They said that important numbers really took a nosedive that day, and they thought that it was going to cost them the election. And they believe it did cost them a clearer victory.

You have Karl Rove out traveling with the press, throwing a football around with the press, giving these predictions of these amazing electoral college totals. And it was an effort to build momentum, [a belief] that momentum could create reality.

And when it didn't happen, when everybody suddenly heads for Florida, where are you, and what do you do?

Well, I was in Austin, and the president was bunkered down at his ranch. The staff was bunkered down at the headquarters on Congress Avenue. And what we didn't realize is that while we were watching what was going on in Florida, Vice President Cheney was in McLean, [Va.,] at his kitchen table, he says, planning the entire government. So they assumed that they had won and began planning the government and doing what you would do during a transition while people were waiting for the recount hell to finish. …

So they come to Washington. When do you discover that Karl Rove would take this position that we discussed earlier?

Karl Rove was always so integral to the idea of George Bush as a candidate that no one was surprised that he took a senior position in the White House. What was interesting was the apparatus that they built around him. He's responsible for four or five offices in the White House, and one of them is one that was created in this White House, the Office of Strategic Initiatives, which is known affectionately around the building as "strategery."

Why is it known as "strategery"?

... It's known as "strategery" off the Saturday Night Live spoof with the president. That office in 2001, long before 9/11, was planning what constituencies they needed to reach and how. ...

Was it true that Karl Rove felt that the DUI had hurt the president with at least one critical base, which was this religious group that hadn't really participated in a political process, that had just basically stayed home?

I think one of the missions in 2000 was to convince conservative voters that Gov. Bush was a true conservative, someone that they could trust. And I think it was the trust issue that really hurt them on the DUI. As you know, a variety of campaign officials believed that a large number of evangelical Christians -- I think you hear the number 4 million -- did not vote. And some portion of that they think was certainly because of the DUI.

And so I would assume at this office of "strategery," part of the plan was to find a way to tap in, to mobilize and motivate that particular group.

The mission was to show evangelical Christians that the president was one of them without scaring other voters, and that's why a lot of what was done was very subtle. You didn't often see the president in a church. You saw [other] presidents in a church much more often than you saw this president. This White House communicated with those voters in a variety of ways to let them know he's one of [them].

What do you mean "variety of ways"?

You wouldn't often see the president talking in frankly religious terms, but when you did it was very passionate. ... These speeches are done on these laminated pages in big type that's in a bound notebook, and he turns the pages as he goes. When the president is talking about his faith -- these few occasions when he's talked about it frankly -- there's no pages turning; the president is just talking.

They push real hard and are extremely aware of the importance of the 2002 midterms, worried that historically there's a retrenchment, and determined ... to test methods that I think they hope to apply to 2004. How [did that feel] to an observer like you over at the White House? How was that part of the daily commerce, if at all?

The White House was very focused on 2002, both because of the importance of the Congress in getting their agenda done, but also as a dry run for themselves in 2004. And the president always says he doesn't like lonely victories, and so the president spends a lot of time working for congressional races. The vice president spent a lot of time raising money for midterm elections. Both the president and vice president had very exhaustive fund-raising schedules for candidates, and the president did a lot of rallies for key Senate candidates in 2002 at the end.

They also used that as a carrot and stick for Republicans and Democrats that they're negotiating with on the Hill. They'd say, "I could come to your district," or they could say, "I don't have to come to your district." And that's one of the ways that they used to persuade members of Congress.

How about in policy terms? Everybody knew the president's four or five big issues. How were those things fine-tuned for the purposes of a midterm election?

One thing that's interesting about the president's policies is that, by and large, they are politically popular. This White House sets up a no-lose situation where either they take something to Congress and can claim victory, or they can take something to Congress, they don't get it, and they go out and campaign against Democrats on it. So either they have a victory, or they have the issue. And that's something they used very skillfully in 2002.

They talked a lot about the few judges the president had nominated who had not been confirmed [instead of] the vast majority of judges who had been confirmed. They very cleverly took the idea of the Department of Homeland Security -- which originally had been a Democratic idea the president resisted -- they took it out, and because Democrats had not passed it due to some objections involving unions, they blamed Democrats for not passing the Department of Homeland Security. And the Democrats will tell you that hurt them grievously.

Take something like tort reform and help me understand. What is tort reform?

I'm going to tell you something that will surprise you: [At] the president's fund-raisers in 2004, by far his biggest applause line -- much bigger than for tax cuts, bigger than for the war on terror -- was always for tort reform, which most people don't even know what it is. I guess you can call it lawsuit reform. Now they're trying to sell it as legal reform. But it's something that's very important to business, it's important to doctors, and it tells you a lot about the audiences that they have for those fund-raisers.

What does it tell you about those audiences?

You could see that these audiences were very business-friendly and very attuned to specific issues that were not on the radar screen of the average American.

When the 2002 midterm elections turn out the way they turn out, what's the sense around the White House about the results? What does it tell them? What does it tell them they should do in 2004?

In 2002, you saw an aggressiveness and a ruthlessness that worked, so it was clear right away that that was going to be the template for the 2004 campaign, and the 2004 campaign really began the day after the midterms. And the president had one day after the midterms when there was a no-gloat policy in the White House, but then the president couldn't help himself. The day after he came out, he gave a news conference, he was all smiles. He was clearly enjoying himself, enjoying the moment. He could see that he was off to a great start on his re-election.

When you talked about aggressiveness, what did you mean by that? In what way were they aggressive?

In 2002, you saw a tirelessness or a relentlessness in the president's travel, his willingness to attack Democrats even who had worked with him on issues in pursuit of Republican votes.

So you sensed even then a change in the way this White House was going to go for 2004 and the way he was going to pursue re-election.

Well, what we saw right away in 2002 [was] that the president was not going to let world events deter him from a very aggressive political schedule of fund-raising, turnout and rallies.

And did you see compassionate conservatism going by the board? ...

In 2002 -- that was very much in the aftermath of 9/11 -- already we're seeing the president's emphasis on security as a motivating issue, and he used it [for] Republican candidates and against Democratic candidates very ruthlessly. Again and again, this White House made it clear that they would not be intimidated from using that as an issue. They said that Democrats were trying to take that issue off the table. They said that 9/11 was an essential part of how people viewed this president, and they were not going to be deterred from talking about it.

On the day of the [2004] election, around 1:00, when Rove gets the phone call about the exit polls, where are you?

On Election Day, the president voted at the Crawford Fire Station, as is tradition, and then he was going to fly back to Washington. I was watching the president from the end of a very muddy, blocked-off street. After he voted, you could see him come out, and he came over to talk to the cameras. And the people who were there said that they'd never seen Mrs. Bush grip his hand so tightly. The people around him were very concerned that they had lost. They'd not been getting good news. States were not locked down that they thought needed to be locked down. They knew that in 2000, they'd been ahead by four points or more. They were barely ahead in polls. In retrospect, they were ahead in every poll. Every [exit poll had been] wrong, but they thought they needed to be ahead much more.

You see the aides, including the president's daughters, standing next to him, watching him talk, all of them looking like they were at a funeral. They say that's because they're tired. You look at them gripping their coffee cup. There was no sense of impending victory. The president, his remarks, [sounded] like a mini-concession speech. …

The president went directly from voting, was driven to the Waco airport. We got on Air Force One and flew back. ... And when we landed at Andrews Air Force Base, everybody looked at their Blackberries and saw these exit polls which made it look like the president's instincts had been right, that nothing good was going to happen to him.

And as the day went on, were they spinning you?

What's so interesting about them is that so many things that they said turned out to be right. And I don't think that they believed some of the things when they were saying them, [but] they were right. [Campaign manager] Ken Mehlman was calling around town with a few talking points about the polls: "Remember, they were wrong in 2000" ... "you can't get a full national picture until 6:00 p.m." He gave a little spiel, and I talked to a bunch of the people that he called, and he told the exact same thing to all of them. Now whether or not he believed that, I don't know, but shortly after 6:00, I think they actually did believe they'd win. ...

And when did you know that they had won?

... I think it was around 10:30. Karl Rove went into the Roosevelt Room at the White House where the senior staff was gathered. Some of their spouses were there. They'd been given souvenir electoral cards to fill in, checking off the states as they went. Further out in the White House, near the press room, you could hear the cheer go up in the Roosevelt Room. So long before any trend became clear on television, the senior staff at least believed that the numbers were much, much, much better for them that they had looked.

Was there any sense of universal relief among some of these people? Were they different people than they'd been earlier in the day, or was it like one of those sweating-bullets kind of moments?

It was a very poker-faced crowd, and a crowd for whom 2000 remains a very vivid memory. You don't get a lot of premature celebrations around this place. They were still cautious. When they took us up to see the president in the residence, I think around 9:30, at that point the reporters still didn't think that it was clear that he was going to win. And I know that the White House became very angry when the television network coverage did not reflect the trends that they were seeing. In 2000 they were angry that the networks were too hasty, and in 2004 they were angry that they were too cautious.

What was it like up in the residence? Who was there? What was the mood? ...

We were taken up to a sitting room, and there were two televisions. We couldn't see what was on [one] television. The one over the side was tuned to Fox. And the president's daughters were there, Mrs. Bush, some close friends, the president's parents, and the dog Barney. And they were all crammed on to couches. It didn't look like a casual election-watching party. But the president said that he was confident. I think part of it may have been for the West Coast. Part of it may have been to reassure staff supporters. But at a time when things still looked dicey, the president wanted to come out and show his confidence.

… What was the body language?

The body language that evening was a studied casualness. It wasn't possible to know what they really thought or knew. …

When they started talking about bringing [forward] Social Security as an issue was [when] the president said he was going to reactivate his campaign mechanism to sell this idea. Tell me about what that means.

The Bush-Cheney campaign talked for two years about this huge ground operation they were going to build through e-mail. They had team leaders; they have block captains, precinct captains. They were going to have thousands of these volunteers throughout the country. And for months, a year, they gave them little chores leading up to the election so that they would keep that network activated. They talked about it as working the muscle. So they would have them send letters to the editor; they would have them call talk shows; they would have them hold house parties for President Bush. It served as both a test for the staff and also to keep the muscle moving, keep the Bush-Cheney volunteers excited and working.

And reporters weren't sure how much difference this organization would make. What the staff said to us is: "We can't control what happens with unemployment; we can't control what happens in Iraq. But what we can control is the size and quality of this operation." And so that's where they put their money, their time, their brain power.

Now, reporters sort of had the idea if the election was close, it could make a big difference. On the other hand, if there was a big wave one way or the other, maybe these macro issues would take over, and this ground operation would not make such a difference. Well, it turned out that this Bush-Cheney machine made a tremendous difference. It was tremendously important to the excitement that the Bush voters had. The Bush voters were in the right place. They were in the place where he needed them.

You see Sen. Kerry talking on TV now about, "If I moved so many votes here, so many votes there" -- the Bush-Cheney machine thought this through and got the votes in the right place, frankly, without a lot to spare.

Now the president's men are thinking about his legacy. And one of them is that they want to keep this Bush-Cheney machine as a living organism. They want it to outlive the campaign. Most presidential campaigns die at the election or at the inauguration. The idea here is to keep the Bush-Cheney network -- the e-mail list, the block captains, the precinct guys -- to keep them working and valuable for both the congressional midterm elections in 2006 and the next presidential election in 2008. ...

The idea is that it would cement or enlarge this Republican control, which Karl Rove dreams of keeping in place for a generation. He knows history. He knows it's not forever, but he believes it could be for a generation. It also makes Karl Rove staff kingmaker for 2008. This financial grassroots operation is tremendously important.

So the first little chore, the first block party after the election is they are going to be asked to work for the president's agenda, and they're going to be asked to help build support for lawsuit reform; for an energy bill; most importantly, for Social Security. Republican congressmen [are] extremely leery; [there's] great trepidation about what the political consequences could be of tinkering with Social Security. The president, Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman [are] meeting with these lawmakers, and one of the carrots they have, one of the ways that they're trying to reassure them, is to tell them that they're going to put this machinery to work, make it available to them, activate them to build support for Social Security.

... Presumably they'll use it not only as a carrot, but also something that can [be used to] punish.

Exactly. The idea is to keep these people riled up, to keep them excited, to keep the base "fired up," as the Republicans always say. It's used both to reassure their friends and also to threaten their enemies. The Democratic senators who are going to be recruited to try to help with Social Security are all Democrats in red states. So you have these big networks in red states, and now they're going to be put to work to build pressure on Democrats to work with the White House, to work with the Republican congressional leadership, to come up with something that the president can call a victory on Social Security so that he can say that he delivered on his promise. ...

So you see in the two days after the State of the Union address, the president is going to five states, all of them with Democratic senators, all of them states that he won, several of them with senators who are up. And in addition to getting people fired up, it also sends a message the president is going to play political hardball on Social Security from day one.

Social Security has always been known as that kind of political third rail: It's a cliché that if you touch it, you die. Why is he touching it?

People say Social Security is too big; it's too complicated. It's just that that makes it attractive to the president and to Karl Rove. The president has said, going back to before he was elected in 2000: "The presidency is about big things. I didn't come here to mark time." They've said that for years and years, and now they're showing it. He wants to be seen as a transformational president, not just abroad, as he clearly has been, ... [but he] also wants to be at home. [He] wants to take on these huge government systems of generations ago that people either couldn't or were afraid to touch. Just the idea that people say that you can't is one of the factors that makes it most appealing for the people who are very concerned about the president's legacy.

At the congressional retreat this weekend, Karl Rove spoke to them. The senators, the congressmen, tell me that he's very focused on the president's legacy, trying to do what President McKinley did, build a generation of Republican control.

You're now covering the Hill. The word hits that Bush and Rove are going to turn the machine toward this great big, complicated, ugly subject. What are the ramifications up there? First, what are the Republicans' reactions?

Republicans have decided that they have to do this, and I'm not sure of all the reasons. Part of it is because they know Bush is popular. They know Bush can raise a lot of money in [their] state. They know Bush can punish them; they know Bush can reward them. They probably philosophically think it's a good idea. The White House is telling them that they're going to put their e-mail warriors, their prayer warriors, their captain warriors, their phone warriors, their letter-to-the-editor warriors to work for them. So you stack up all those reassurances, and you still have considerable reservations.

Karl Rove argues that the politics of Social Security have changed; not only will taking this on not be harmful, it could be hopeful. Republicans in Congress aren't convinced yet. They look at races where the White House says that Social Security is helpful, and they say, "Social Security just didn't kill that candidate."

... It's a little like quarterly earnings. House Republicans are concerned about 2006, the very short term, and they worry that if Democrats stick together, Democrats could try to use this issue to take back the House. Given redistricting, that's unlikely until 2012, but you always watch your back. These Republicans took control of the House somewhat by surprise. They know it can be done.

Karl Rove and the White House, they're looking for eight, 12 years down the road to both how the president will be viewed and to the demographics of the Republican Party. They're convinced that if you have more people owning something, more people having a little stock -- even if it's something that they barely control -- that these people are more likely to vote Republican. And so the idea is to take what they achieve in November 2004 and make it last, and even make it bigger.

What are the obstacles to that?

The House Republican whip, Roy Blunt from Missouri, told me that the Republican leadership is throwing themselves into this. They want to make this work. They bought into the White House timetable of doing it this year. And so he said that in their conversations, Republicans have gone from cautious to cautiously optimistic. But he said, "Everything would still have to go perfectly." And if you've ever watched Capitol Hill, those are daunting odds.

I talked yesterday to Christie Todd Whitman, who's complaining mightily and loudly about Karl Rove and George W. Bush and what she calls the conservative fundamentalists. She says that these guys have captured the party, and it will not succeed, it cannot succeed without the middle; that things like Social Security are folly without them. What are you hearing about that?

The big question among Republicans is, "Will the president use this control to reach out to others to enlarge his constituency?" He didn't put a lot of effort into that. He didn't expend a lot of resources on that during the campaign. He was urged, even by people on the campaign staff, to run more toward the middle. But he won on his terms, in his words, with his message, with his people. And so it's difficult for these centrist Republicans to argue, "You need us." They did it [without them]. And a big test of how this president ultimately will be viewed is whether he wants to be viewed as the red-state president or whether he wants to be viewed, as he says in a few speeches, "I'm here to serve all the people." And what even many Republicans are watching for is, do the policies reflect that rhetoric? ...

In the battle for Social Security, it's an actual policy battle; it's not a political battle, right?

I'm going to challenge your premise. Republicans are making the case that this is, for the next generation, that this is about fixing a fiscal problem. But the people around the president also looked at it in political terms. You can see this from the way that they're fighting the battle, by dropping Air Force One into the states of Democratic senators that they want to target rather than having the Democratic senator in for dinner. As one Senate staffer said to me, "They want to work on us, not with us." Now, this has been successful for the president in the past, but it's clear that they see it as a campaign and not simply a policy dispute. ...

If I'm a United States senator, I'm a congressman, the White House could wield some substantial power?

The White House has an enormous number of tools at its disposal. You can drive the president and Air Force One into a state. You can have that senator or congressman walk out of the plane with you; they're going to ride with you. ... The president plays this to the hilt. In his remarks, you always hear him point out which local official "hitched a ride with him on Air Force One," as he always puts it. … And in addition to getting people fired up, it also sends a message the President is going to play political hardball on Social Security from day one. …

And the Republican congressional leadership, which is now invested in doing this, can control what projects that member, that senator, can get. Republican groups, Democratic groups are pulling out their playbooks from 2004 and running TV ads in the districts of key people. So if you're a targeted or wavering or vulnerable Republican or Democratic member or senator, you're going to be getting it from all sides.

Gary Bauer and the religious conservatives are pushing hard, saying, "We're not so sure about this Social Security thing; maybe we ought to tie it to the gay marriage amendment." How real is that?

One challenge that this administration faces is that Christian conservatives believe that they made George Bush president. The people around him believe that there were a lot of factors that made him president; that [the Christian conservatives] were one important one, but that he does not owe the presidency to this specific group. And so they're going to see tension as one particular group of people tries to collect on a debt that they believe they have, and the White House continues trying to serve and build a larger constituency. So it's like the White House always has to keep a lid on that pot while also cooking other things.

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posted april 12, 2005

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