Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
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interviews: mary matalin
We are relentlessly practical, commonsensical people. And most of the conservative policies, the practical conservative policies, are just that.

… When [the president] called Karl Rove "the architect," what did he mean by that?

That this was a unique campaign in a unique time. Through the whole entire campaign, conventional wisdom reigned that he could not win, that these templates of previous elections were a harbinger of a defeat. And that Karl, on the face of all of that -- at the president's direction because the president was not going to change any policies -- crafted the vehicle to go out and find voters to make the margin of difference, a significant margin of difference. So he was the architect. He did not abide by the conventional wisdom rules. And saw his way through fighting what had been the tactics of yore to be victorious in what is a different political age.

In as specific terms as you can, how did he do it?

Well, we all know this, this is pretty clear now where those extra voters came from. He went to places and spoke to people as individuals, and had the kind of data that allowed him to do that, and had aggressive grassroots efforts to turn out occasional, casual Republican, conservative, moderate, practical voters. So it was a very -- I don't want to say hand-to-hand combat, but he used new tactics by using the kind of very refined data to speak to these voters. But, he also went to where people live and got them in a way that is not usually captured. We kind of always think in big cities or suburbs, and he went beyond that. He went to where the people are moving to.

… How revolutionary was [the idea of a base strategy] to you when you first heard about it as opposed to the vital center and all those other things we used to talk about all the time?

Well, this is a blue-state mythology that we ran a base campaign. We did not win with the base. The base is always important. The base is important for both sides [but] you can't win with the base. What this president won by, and significantly so in this election, were moderates. That's what Kerry didn't get. So you had to put moderates on top of something. But, there was no data that suggest any increase at any of the so-called base voters beyond the percentage of what they voted for in the last election. That is the fact.

It has become, even in the face of the repudiation of conventional wisdom, new conventional wisdom, that this was a base election. That's just not the case. So if the blue staters continue to mis-analyze what happened in this election, they will continue along the path of not such a positive outcome.

Republican commentator Mary Matalin served as an assistant to President George W. Bush and counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney. Matalin tells FRONTLINE that she disagrees with the "blue-state mythology" that the president was re-elected based on a strategy of reaching out to the hardcore Republican base. "The base is important for both sides, [but] you can't win with the base," she says. "What this president won by, and significantly so in this election, were moderates. That's what Kerry didn't get." Matalin says that victory was due to the combination of Karl Rove's "excruciatingly detailed mano-a-mano getting voters to the polls" combined with the president's policies, including Social Security reform and tort reform, that voters recognized as both "visionary" and "practical." This interview was conducted on Jan. 6, 2005.

So tell me what did happen.

What happened was this. The voters, in a quintessential American fashion, were both visionary and practical. The practical necessity of this election, or the outcome of this election, is we want to be safe, we want to be secure. The visionary aspect of their thinking was well, the way we were doing it wasn't working. So there's a new way. Bush has put a new way on the table. … We feel more secure with him, and there's a visionary way he wants to do this. There's a practical application of a visionary policy.

Also on economic issues. Also on the domestic agenda. The Social Security thing is going to fall apart. You know, that's a practical thing. I want my retirement to be secure. The visionary thing is that hasn't worked. What is Bush putting out there?

So we had a very unique policy approach in combination with the architect, Karl Rove's excruciatingly detailed mano-a-mano getting voters to the polls. And that's what happened. This is not a big values election, as the blue staters want to say. We all have values. Every American has values. We have unique American values that pervade our culture. That's not a right/left thing either.

How far behind in the election cycle, or in catching up, are Democrats to what this campaign actually performed, both in the details of the science of election or electoral politics, and the art of policy and other things? How many cycles behind are they? Are they obliterated?

No, the Democrats are not obliterated. I don't pretend to be an expert on them, I think I know a few occasionally well. But, the metrics of their profession, they did what they needed to do. They not only met, they exceeded their turnout goals. They needed to cross the threshold into the visionary aspect and why would you vote for these guys? They turned their people out. They turned them out in numbers in excess of what their projected needs were going to be.

What they didn't get was capture the imaginations, if you will, of practical voters who want something new to attend to their needs. So that's a policy issue; that's not a mechanical issue. They have great mechanics, and they have great spokesmen. They have very skilled professional campaigners. They do not have a rationale as a party, for the moment.

What this country was founded on, has prospered by, has only made progress with [is] a two-party system. We need competition. We need debate. It's healthy. And there needs to be loyal opposition. They're not just going to go away. I hope they do regroup. It makes us stronger. It makes Republicans stronger when Democrats are better.

One of the things I saw that night of the election was James Carville near the end of the evening, pushing back from the table and saying, "The Democrats have lost the argument. It's clear that the Republicans have won in lots of ways." Do you agree with that?

Well, having been across the table in another way with that very same person throughout the election and argued with him about it, they really did have an opposite view. They had a different view, and that view lost. That's really true. They lost the big argument on are we more secure with this more aggressive and new national security strategy, and new foreign policy? Is this time akin to the 1940's, and post-World War II? Do we have to restructure? We won that argument. …

Take somebody like Rove, put him in this intersection of policy and politics. How important was that for somebody who also plays a significant role in the politics of the situation to be in that job?

… It's very rare, not unseen, but rare in politics that you have somebody who's as [talented] with policy and politics. That is somehow looked upon askance, but it shouldn't be. If you can't get from the people what it is they need policy-wise, or in the alternative, or simultaneously cannot communicate why you think what you're proposing is the best, that's the political angle of it. You've got to be able to communicate what you're doing. If you don't have somebody who understands that intersection, you fail.

And I would say, as I look at the Democratic lineup, there was nobody on that Kerry campaign really whose mind was at the intersection of policy and politics. They have people in their party who do that; they just weren't on that campaign. And they weren't listening to people outside that campaign who do think like that.

… From basically election night 2000, the re-election campaign was kind of underway, at least the planning for it. Matthew [Dowd] goes off to all these presidential libraries, there's the 72-hour project around the mid-terms. Was this different by any degree at all from what you've seen otherwise?

This is another one of those notions, the continuous campaign, as if it was ever not so. Okay, let's go back to Lincoln. Let's go back to especially the modern campaigns. And in more recent days, the greater the acceleration of the media or communication outlets, the greater the need to have an even more continuous campaign, if you will. So no, it never goes away because politics never goes away.

That does not mean to say that everything you're doing in office is geared toward your political needs, particularly when we find ourselves in this transformed role with the new threats, both domestically and, obviously, on the national [security] front. So you had to do what you had to do to lead, but you had to be able to communicate that. And that is an ongoing daily requirement, exacerbated ironically by the number of outlets for information available to people. It's so cacophonous out there that you have to be more than working on six cylinders. So I [do] think it's different by tactics, but not by degree or execution.

So what happens now? … What does the president have to do, if anything, to ensure [a continuing] Republican majority?

My all-time favorite thing about this period of our history is that all the conventional projections have been proved relentlessly and repeatedly wrong, most often under this president's tenure. Everything everybody said was going to happen, he's violated all of those conventional templates. But, even preceding that, it was not even in anyone's realm of possibility that the Republicans could have taken over the House of Representatives when they did in 1994, let alone hang on to them … or come back with the strength that they have in the Senate. But, beyond that, this has been a long process in the arc of history. When I first came to Washington with President Reagan in 1980, we had a handful of governors; we had no state legislators. At every level, Republicans -- conservatives or moderate-leaning conservatives -- have made gains in government. …

I just think this president has to do what he's done to make him successful so far, which is to continue meeting people's needs. I say again, it's practical and it's visionary. We really are in our history, not in our political times, but in our history, at the transformation. Our systems that are in place to maintain and improve our quality of life are antiquated. And our national security and foreign policy positions and strategies are equally antiquated and manifestly inadequate. So he just has to keep being bold in keeping those policies going and communicating, and then let the political chips fall where they may.

But, on its day-to-day practical sense, he also has to -- and this is [crucial] in politics -- you have to do what you say you were going to do. On either side of the aisle, an interesting statistic is when these guys get in office, I don't care if you're the Democrat or Republican, about 98 percent of the time they do what they said they were going to do. And this president did run on Social Security reform, tort reform, and the rest, so there's got to be some reform. And I dare say the Republicans in Congress should dance that dance with him.

Help me with tort reform. We talked to a reporter who followed Bush through the campaign and said every time he talked about it, big applause, crowds going nuts. What is it with tort reform?

Because tort reform has become an empty verbiage for us. But for people who run a small business in the greatest growing sector of our economy -- our small-business owners, women owners, minority small-business owners -- they're constantly plagued by potential litigation which makes the difference in how many people they can hire. It reduces their productivity because they're diverting resources. It's a very practical, on-the-ground, everyday problem for people who are running their own businesses.

It's obviously a huge problem for bigger businesses. It's becoming really almost a death-creating situation in the medical profession. So everywhere you look people are plagued by everything from annoying frivolous litigation to counter-productive and unhealthy litigation. People get it. They don't think it was "tort reform," but it was like this defies common sense. Americans are inexorably and continuously full of common sense. And it just doesn't make common sense for you to be able to sue McDonalds if you spill a cup of coffee on yourself, or for your OB-GYN -- and this has happened to me -- reducing services because of the increase of their insurance. It's a kitchen-table issue, that's what it is. And as more people rely more on generating their own income out of home-owned businesses, small businesses, it's a kitchen-table, everyday practical, "show me the money" issue.

So what does the president have to do in practical terms, what's ahead of him to get that done?

… We have to -- and this is a real unique skill of this president -- he needs to change the culture. People have to be embarrassed to sue over frivolous things. There's kind of a golden rule here, to do unto others you would have them do unto you. And there has to be a greater cultural affinity for it. And he's done a lot of this. And the culture is doing it itself.

Responsibility. It's a changing of the culture, it's some practical things that the Congress is going to do, I'm confident they're going to do it. And I don't think this one will be a heavy lift.

And it has the actual advantage of cutting right to the heart of a Democratic power base, a Democratic funding base.

It's fortuitous, it's fortuitous. But, that was not its goal. I think you'll find many, many Democrats agreeing and jumping on the bandwagon with this. …

What do you think [Barry Goldwater's candidacy] meant in terms of where we are now as a country?

That's a question for, let's go drink some wine and talk about it. But, I think, as much as it's been recast in political history, it just tapped into another quintessential American characteristic. We're all libertarians at heart, in our gut. We were born of the quest for freedom and liberty -- it's what my version of libertarianism is, and pushing forward and making progress and taking risks. Just have minimum intrusion in the way in which you do that while taking care of our fellow citizens.

And I think that was a modern 20th century articulation of a counterweight to a government that was growing away from valuing individual risk taking and liberty and entrepreneurship of America. You know, that was the first counterweight to the mommy states.

The question is, and this is what a lot of people say, this is the Woodstock for a different kind of generation, a different group of people. Yes or no?

Well, here's what the press didn't get, that there actually are Woodstock-esque cool people who have a different political outlook. I'm the whole Woodstock thing; I'm Beatles. You know, my husband is not Beatles. I'm in that whole generation, did that, was there, burnt my bra, blah-blah-blah. I am a libertarian in the most classical sense, in a Barry Goldwater way. And all across the country people are like that.

What the press misses is they move to places where people have to take risks and want to be open and have that space. [Members of the press] don't live there. They live in some little place and they talk to themselves over and over. I'm not attacking the press. It's just if they're not tapped into it, they think it doesn't exist.

They have this same issue with people of faith. I actually had a reporter, a very serious reporter, ask me, have I ever met a Christian, an Evangelical Christian? Well, you would think in the media line of work if you see this as a coming and emerging and serious political force, you go out and meet an Evangelical Christian; they're not hard to find.

So I think there's something myopic about the media to miss that. And something painful about resisting it, resisting that there are cool people, if you will. That this is not just yahoos hanging out in a cave somewhere in the mountains of the west. It's just not what it is. …

I could draw a line from Goldwater to Reagan to this president that makes perfect sense intellectually. It even makes perfect sense when you watch the geography of America and the way things have changed and become the way they are. How do you see it?

I see it as much of the final throes of the American version of the socialist view, giant, big government doing everything, in the American way. I'm not saying we are socialists. But, I see it more as the death throes of that or as much as the ascendancy of a common-sense conservatism. I don't see this as some transformation or realignment. We are, as I said, relentlessly practical, commonsensical people. And most of the conservative policies, the practical conservative policies, are just that. They're practical and they're commonsensical. Americans are just full of, how do we live every day in the best way? They're not ideologues.

You know this president pretty well. Does he care about leaving that kind of a legacy, the Republicanism that lives on and on and on for generations?

You know, of course he cares about his party. But, when he ran, you'll recall, the first time it was: I'm a different kind of Republican. What I believe he would like his legacy to be at this point in time is a new way in which people can have better lives all around the world, which culminates in the security for Americans. He really believes that any of the hyperbole or histrionics that have been applied to it. He believes in his heart in freedom -- not just the best way to live, but as the most secure way for the whole world to live. And I think that would be his number one legacy. He understands how ephemeral parties are. I'm sure that's fabulous, wonderful and he's proud of the byproduct of really great policies that have made us safer.

[Tell me how Karl operates during the campaign.]

Karl rightly gets a lot of credit for being the architect and all that. What is less known, and is equally critical to his success, is the way in which he was the general and the commandant for the troops. And that's a heavy management duty.

And one of the ways he did it outside of the Breakfast Club, which is a weekly meeting, was to have these daily morning and evening calls. So in the morning, he would say, "What is our goal for the day? And how are we going to achieve it?" And at the bottom of the day he'd say, "Did we meet our goal today?" Day after day after day. Of course, the in between, sandwiched in between was how we were meeting, what he asked us to do, what we agreed in the morning would be the best way to respond to Kerry, or to advance a message that needed to be adjusted.

And deploy the troops.

And deploy the very surrogates, who was the best one to do it, in what vehicle? Do they put out a statement? Do they go on TV? Do they include it in their speech? If it's a new speech we've got to slap the reporters around and say, "We're going to say something new today, wake up, wake up." You know, there's a lot of tactics that put you in the position of breakthrough and what your message is of the day. And then there's a ton of follow up and pushing it, and talking to reporters, and communicating with everybody out in the outside world.

You know, when Karl wagged his tail, the little dog would go running. …

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posted april 12, 2005

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