Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
photo of dana milbank
interviews: dana milbank
Karl's influence and strength [is being] the able to whisper in the president's ear after the others have left the room.

Karl Rove comes to Washington with George W. Bush. What precedes him in terms of what you know about him?

Karl Rove comes to town with a larger-than-life reputation. The Svengali images are made right away, even before he arrives. And that's continued, really, over the past four years. He gets credit or blame for just about everything, even things that I think we can genuinely say, in retrospect, he had nothing to do with. But he was seen as the architect of the president's election from the start -- obviously a successful one in the end, if disputed at the time.

So everybody in Washington, the political crowd in Washington, knew him. Many of them knew him personally. ... He'd worked on a wide range of senatorial and other campaigns around the country, but he wasn't a Washington creature. He hadn't set up office here and really wasn't part of the Washington establishment, such as it was. So he started off with a tremendous amount of respect from the political culture because of what he had done and then because of this massive role that he took in this White House, really larger than any other presidential aide has taken before.

How formidable was what he had done, bringing George W. Bush to town?

Well, bringing him to town and then keeping him here. ... Using entirely different strategies, he was able to adjust to what he could see as the [predominant] mood in the country at the moment. "Compassionate conservatism" was the notion that brought Bush to power the first time around, and it was almost the opposite the second time around. It was a pure and simple play to the Republican conservative base. Forget about the compassion; this was conservatism. So he was able to switch message even using the same candidate.

I remember all of us -- the political chattering folks in town -- thought that the idea of a base election strategy never had been tried before, and they were very suspicious that the ideas would appeal to the middle. He proved that wrong. The first time around, maybe it wasn't an expectations game, because he wasn't fighting uphill in such a way. But the extraordinary way in which he put together this massive war chest, intimidating all the candidates out in the field, creating this sense of inevitability -- the man's not even an incumbent. [He] had been governor for four years at the time his campaign started. So it was equally impressive in the way that he took a one-term governor and made him the all-but-certain president.

Milbank is a reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, and the author of Smashmouth: Two Years in the Gutter with Al Gore and George W. Bush, a book about his experiences covering the 2000 presidential campaign. In this interview, he talks about Karl Rove's role at the intersection of politics and policy in the Bush White House, his skill at mobilizing the Republican base, and how Rove wields power in Washington. "We've seen a couple of different sides of Karl Rove," he says. "At times he really seems to enjoy the Svengali image, times when he will be almost antic when we're traveling: clowning around, throwing snowballs at the press corps and joking about his elevated role in all kinds of sinister events. And other times he will be completely removed. So my guess, based on watching him, is he alternates between loving this image that he has in town as the second most powerful man in America, and knowing that it's bad for him because it makes him a giant target." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 20, 2004.

[Is there] anybody who's come [to Washington] who quite took on the role that he had, kind of standing in that intersection of politics and policy?

Well, I don't know of anybody personally. Somebody like Jim Baker may have had that. But even then, he'd switch hats within the presidency or presidencies and do a range of different jobs. What's unique about Karl is his not changing his position at all. Within one position, he's free to dabble and to command politics and policy. So he's atop the White House's entire political apparatus: Several different departments that would typically report to the president are now just under Karl. He's amassed this large political empire within the White House, but he has a seat at the table in virtually every policy matter that he wants to get involved in. There are several he's not involved in, but those would be by his choice.

In this White House, the domestic policy people in particular have been unusually low profile, some would say weak. They haven't been very strong figures there leading the domestic policy. Karl has filled that vacuum. I think you could fairly argue that he's the president's chief political adviser, but arguably also his [chief] policy adviser.

How much of it is politics, and how much of it is policy? Is it distinguishable at all?

Maybe it's a false dichotomy to put politics on one side and policy on the other. Karl Rove came to town with one goal, and that was this massive Republican realignment in the nation's politics, trying to do what President McKinley did a century earlier. So by definition, his policy issues shift depending on what the needs of the moment are. ... It's all driven by politics and the need to create that enduring Republican majority. Once that is done, [the policies] will take care of themselves. So it's very hard to say it's one or the other.

What I've found to be true of Karl, contrary to what many people believe, [is that] he's not an ideologue. He's certainly not a religious conservative. I think he's not even that much of an ideological conservative. He's a loyal-to-George W. Bush conservative, and he's a partisan in the sense that he's in to boost the Republican Party rather than a particular philosophy of limited government. That's why I suspect Karl Rove is not overly concerned with the size of the government, which has grown rather than shrunk under President Bush.

So I'd say it all starts in the politics, not in the politics of, can we win 51 votes or 60 votes in the Senate, but in terms of cementing a political majority for the party for the long term so you can do whatever you want with policy.

Is Rove's aspiration independent of Bush in a way? Does Bush care at all about that big, high-story idea?

I think he does. I mean, it's hard to say. It's a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation, but obviously Karl Rove, going back to his College Republican days, was interested in the party to a much larger extent than George W. Bush was. Bush became involved not because of the party but because of his father. Now, are they eye to eye on that view right now? Absolutely. Karl Rove is going to be the Mark Hanna to Bush's William McKinley. They both share that philosophy. There can be no doubt about it. People often talk of Rove sort of filling the empty President Bush's brain with ideas, and that's a bunch of nonsense. They're like-minded men of similar age and [both] exceedingly sharp, so I can't know how you trace ideas from one to the other necessarily.

I did see some glimpse of that when I was covering the 2000 campaign. Karl Rove handed over this book, The Dream and the Nightmare, by Myron Magnet of the Manhattan Institute ... and said that he got Bush sold on this. He gave Bush compassionate conservatism. He doesn't take credit for those things these days -- that's impolitic to take credit for the president's applause lines -- but he did say forthrightly, and I'm sure properly at that time, that he presented compassionate conservatism to Bush, first as Texas governor and then expanding on it for the presidential race.

I have this idea that Bush, then especially, was this kind of perfectly empty vessel, that the Vulcans [Bush's foreign policy advisers] filled with one set of ideas and Rove filled with another. What was your sense from [the 2000] campaign?

An empty vessel, perhaps, in the sense of national policy. That's not to say the president's not an extremely bright man. I think those of us who doubted his political abilities have been proven wrong again and again. So [he was already] a very smart man in terms of experience in several presidential campaigns -- twice with his father, also with the Reagan campaign... [He is] a very shrewd political tactician, a man who understands the importance of loyalty. That's pure Bush: putting loyalty above all else. The administration's reputation for secrecy, that comes right from President Bush; the idea of how you manage a large institution -- the M.B.A. president has become something of a cliché, but that's all Bush. That has nothing to do with Karl Rove. ...

Now, it stands to reason that when Bush ran for office in Texas, he didn't have a full slate of views that he had cooked up over the years, ... and the same thing happened when it came time for the presidential run. Rove, as well as others -- Steve Goldsmith, the mayor of Indianapolis -- put together a series of sort of tutorials ... in economics, in domestic policy, foreign policy. They put together a group, half a dozen tutors or whatever. They had these regular meetings with Bush where he'd ask questions and be briefed and get him up to speed very quickly on the issues. Karl was instrumental in getting that going, particularly in his pet areas, which would involve the compassionate conservatism.

But this is not a guy pouring ideas in Bush's head.

In some cases, we've seen Karl handing the policy to Bush -- "Compassionate conservatism is the ticket" -- but I think it would be wrong to see Karl as the man who cooks up all the policies, simply because I don't think Karl is particularly more ideological than the president is. Both of them have a common mission of advancing President Bush's personal success and, with that, Republican successes. Neither man is a fiercely ideological individual. So in the sense that Karl has a whole bunch of prepared policies sitting on the shelf that he's been waiting to implement his whole life, I think that's wrong. He has a changing mixture of policies, and he'll drop one or he'll adopt one ... depending on what's needed to create and expand your political base.

Is that his great strength, then? What is it that makes Karl Rove Karl Rove?

I think it's flexibility. He has succeeded in a wide range of campaigns with sometimes conflicting or contrary ideas. As I was saying earlier, the notion that you run a man for the presidency on a compassionate conservatism agenda, but basically run against the base, rhetorically, against the far right of the party in 2000, reaching out to the middle and saying, "I'm the man; I'm a centrist candidate here," ... and in 2004 running a campaign almost entirely aimed at that same base, [that] both campaigns worked, that's extraordinary. To have two presidential victories is a big enough achievement, and a very small club has achieved that. To achieve these two victories under entirely different circumstances and with almost an entirely different message is, I think, makes it a little bit more extraordinary.

As a reporter, what is Rove like to cover? How does he handle you?

Well, the Rove before the president was elected was accessible. You could get him on the telephone. He enjoyed argument, so he'd like to argue a point with you. He seemed to enjoy the give-and-take. That all changed, certainly for me and for most of my colleagues, after the election. He layered himself away from the press. Maybe he picks one, maybe two [people] at each newspaper [or] large publication that he designates as the person he'll take a question from, and he will occasionally volunteer e-mail responses and an occasional interview to all the rest of us. But he has become a more distant figure to us, sort of adding to the mystery and the Rove mystique.

Is it a mystique?

Well, what's a mystique? It's a mystique in the sense that he gets credit and blame for things that he has nothing to do with. I remember not long ago I was covering a story about the wine producers getting ready to argue about direct wine shipments in a case before the Supreme Court, and the winemakers all thought the White House [was going to] weigh in on their side. They find out at the last minute that they're not going to. So immediately they blame Karl Rove: "Oh, yes, he called his friends on this side; they got everything moving." I actually got Karl Rove to do a little e-mail exchange after that. [He] presented a clear enough argument that I was convinced that he had absolutely nothing to do with this whole thing at all, finding out about it only after the fact.

So yes, that's the Rove mystique. He'll get credit or blame. Nothing's too insignificant or too great, from an argument in a legal case about wine up to the Iraq war.

Does he nurture that kind of Rove-mystique image?

We've seen a couple of different sides of Karl Rove. At times he really seems to enjoy the Svengali image, times when he will be almost antic when we're traveling: clowning around, throwing snowballs at the press corps and joking about his elevated role in all kinds of sinister events. And other times he will be completely removed. So my guess, based on watching him, is he alternates between loving this image that he has in town as the second most powerful man in America, and knowing that it's bad for him because it makes him a giant target. So it seems that he's pulled between those two things. ...

How was the relationship between Rove and Karen Hughes, the former White House [special adviser to the president]?

Publicly, always good. Word [spread] of occasional disagreements over how an issue is to be presented, particularly during the campaign. The reputation [was] that Rove has the political instincts but sometimes a bit of a tin ear and [would] not know how the word would sound, so [they would] have to take Karl's raw political ideas and run it through Karen's message machine. She had much more of the common touch and the ability to communicate, which was actually her job. So if something came out a little too harsh, it would be perceived as having the Rove influence, and if it was sort of delicate and nicely done, you'd suspect that Karen had something to do with it.

And they would struggle over what?

Well, word has it that they would have arguments over policy from time to time, but it was really about the speeches, how hard you push on particular issues. So these are the pre-9/11 issues, such as immigration. They've all faded from our consciousness by this time, but the tendency, when Karen Hughes was still working in the White House, would be that Karl Rove was working on how you rally the conservative base, and Karen was much more interested in broad appeal to the public. So when you'd see a presidential appearance going one way or the other, you'd declare one of the two poles had prevailed.

But it doesn't sound like it's hammerlocks and billy clubs here.

No. They've acknowledged that they've had their arguments. I think even the most aggressive conspiracy theorists would not suspect that had anything to do with Karen Hughes leaving town. But by the same token, ... once Karen disappeared, you saw a change in the White House, and you saw a change in Bush. It was actually the absence of Karen that helped us to see Karl's influence.

And what was it?

Well, it was tonal more than anything else, but a more aggressive tone, occasionally a more sharply political tone, more confrontational. We began to see more and more the ways in which the president was using his political capital, as the phrase is always used now, to appeal to the conservative base.

Once in office, after the compassionate conservatism campaign of 2000, Karl decided right then that the crucial thing was to get out a couple million more of the conservatives, particularly the evangelicals who had not voted, just were missing in that first election. He set himself out to do that, putting himself over the Office of Public Liaison, ... and within that took a guy from Gary Bauer's presidential campaign, Tim Goeglein, as a point man on outreach to these groups. Once Karen Hughes departed, you'd see a lot more of the overt or one-sided appeals to the conservative base ... [instead of] the softer, fuzzier rhetoric that we saw in the earlier versions.

He was, in fact, wrong in terms of his estimates about the outcome of 2000. It was a heck of a lot closer than Karl Rove predicted it would be. Did it scare him?

Did it scare him for the long term? Well, evidently not. I remember a week before the 2004 election, we were gathered outside a rally; I think it was up in Pennsylvania. We all clustered in this scrum around Karl, wanting to get pearls of wisdom from him. And he went through this whole thing about [how] the state's Democrats think they're finished, and there are only eight states that are in play, and [the Republicans] are ahead in six of them. And it sounded all so rosy and so easy, and somebody reminded him: "Didn't you say something like this before the last campaign?" He said, "Sure, rub my nose in it."

But this time it turned out he was spot-on at a time when nobody else was. I think part of what he did last time was a game in creating that sense of inevitability. That's what the campaign was about the first time around. And part of it -- this was the greatest psychological move in the press that things are tilting towards Bush -- it didn't actually happen that way, but it will occasionally give momentum to your side.

Tell me about the Rolodex.

Karl informally set up for himself sort of an alternate network of informants or political consultants, but they're not the usual political consultants. There were two or three of those on his list, but he assembled sort of a sounding board. There's nothing formal about it. They never meet. These are just the people that Karl will call on the telephone, a lot of them friends from Texas, people strategically placed around the country or a Senate president or some such in Iowa, the state legislator up in New Hampshire -- people well placed: the various conservative groups in town, the various business interests. They're not always the sort of household names that you'd suspect. They might be a layer down from that. They might be a smart chief of staff to a key Republican on Capitol Hill who is not necessarily one of the leaders.

He set up his group. It's not really a group, but he amassed this collection of people so that he could have his own independent sounding board, so he could get fresh outside-the-Beltway ideas, so he didn't become trapped in Washington once he moved to Washington.

It was a systematic way of keeping in touch. People said they were the sensors, his eyes and ears. He could get his own leading indicators on where political things were going rather than relying on the usual opinion polls and what the pollsters and the political consultants and, God forbid, the media are saying. So you have this alternate apparatus.

Anybody on that list surprise you?

What surprised me was that just so many of them were unknown. We were mystified in many cases and even had trouble finding out who some of these people were as we Googled them.

... It was very light on some of the K Street crowd and very heavy on the unknown state lawmakers, party officials from around the country. This guy's smart. He knows what's going on out here. He comes with informants. ...

Editor's Note: Read the full Washington Post article about Rove's Rolodex by Dana Milbank and Thomas B. Edsall.

Tell me about the Monday morning conference call with chiefs of staff.

... It's once a week that he has a call with the chiefs of staff at the various Cabinet agencies. People who follow these sort of government organization things far more than I do say that this is unique. They never heard of something like this before. It's a way for the White House to impose its will on these Cabinet agencies or, in a more friendly way, to make sure everybody's staying on message.

This White House learned a great deal from the Reagan administration in terms of making appointments to the Cabinet agencies from the White House, not letting Cabinet secretaries do their own thing. It's not a Cabinet government by any stretch. This is a White House that very much made sure that each one of them out there is a mouthpiece for the president to do exactly as they've been told to do. There have been some notable exceptions, and those people have tended to depart early in the administration.

So as another layer of White House control, Karl has these meetings to find out what's being planned at the Cabinet agency and, more importantly, to tell them what they should be planning in the Cabinet agencies. He has another meeting that's weekly during campaign time for all the political people in the president's orbit. They come out to [Karl's] house [where he] makes some terrible egg concoction and the people from the RNC, when there's a campaign, the people from the campaign, and from his own political shop sit back and talk and plan planning sessions. One of the things he's created in the White House is an Office of Strategic Initiatives, that they call "strategery" after the Saturday Night Live joke about the president's vocabulary.

Yet another group is both staff, and then they have meetings with various acronyms of people to do strategic planning for the White House. That's also led by Karl. So there are various circles: the Cabinet agencies, meetings with special interest groups, political strategists, the strategic thinkers within the White House.

What's it all about? What's he doing?

Mostly he's the eyes and ears for the president, and he can get outside of the bubble. ... That's what Rove's Rolodex is about. He's casting his net as wide as he can for political straws in the wind, emerging trends. So he's basically sucking in all this information, all these leading indicators. He can distill that and base a recommendation for the president based on that also. He's an information gatherer before everything. His strength is in the process of synthesizing. He's able to see how things are going.

Is he an enforcer?

I can't rule out that he does that sort of thing, but ... he's more of an intellectual, and he's, in the pure sense, a strategist. In the campaign the first time around, Joe Allbaugh was that enforcer.

If you're looking for a loyalty enforcer, you look to the president. That's what he's always been about, during his father's campaign as well. ... They're all quite good at that, and certainly he's as loyal as the next guy, but I don't think he wastes much time with management and disciplines.

But he's not [Nixon aide and counsel John] Ehrlichman or [Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob"] Haldeman either, right? ... I'm trying to think of anyone who's like him from anywhere in government because he's also political, and he's so connected.

I think the closest was Jim Baker... . What you have in the White House, particularly now that Karen Hughes is gone, you have a relatively weak chief of staff [Andy Card], who's well liked by everybody and very efficient, and he handles the paper, and he's the body guy for the president. And with Karen Hughes' return to Texas, the man in charge of the whole communications apparatus is a guy who worked for Rove down in Texas before he worked for Bush [Dan Bartlett]. So really, his dominance cannot be questioned by anybody in the White House except for maybe the vice president. But in terms of the power and the breadth of what he does, are there examples through history? Probably, but they're probably not from the postwar period.

How does he wield this power?

I wish I'd be invited into these meetings to see how he does it, but it's strictly an internal affair. He doesn't wield power in public. ... I guess the best way to answer the question is, he wields his power through his one-on-one contact with Bush. He's one of the very few who can do that, who has open-door access to the president and the Oval Office. Even pretty senior advisers need to schedule themselves to get an audience with Bush. He's one that does not.

... Karl's influence and strength [is being] able to whisper in the president's ear after the others have left the room. You don't hear a lot of legendary stories of Karl crushing foes within the White House. ... People who work under him, but also people who work in potentially rival departments in the White House, seem to regard him as a friendly face. He doesn't send chills and fears through the White House.

No temper?

Oh, I'm sure there's a temper there somewhere, but that's not his reputation.

Is this a hard White House to report on?

My experience is only with this [administration] and the previous one, and it's sort of like night and day. But what I've learned in talking to folks over the years is that this White House [is] better than any, certainly since Watergate, at holding information, using it to its advantage. The cliché when they came to office was that this was going to be the no-leak administration. Obviously, that never can be achieved, but they came pretty darn close and with very few exceptions.

They achieved this in the way that they held on to information. Part of that is there are so few people in that building who know what's going on on any given issue. So the mid- or lower-level people who spend their time talking or leaking to those of us in the press have no idea what's going on, or they only know a tiny little piece of it.

Then maybe there's three people -- Karl Rove, Andy Card, the vice president -- who really do know what's up. It's a pretty small group, and if you're a small group, it's much easier to keep your secrets. So they've been very effective at both holding the information and not letting out any sign of internal debate. Then once the decision is made, [they] have this massive rollout, so that everybody's literally talking from the same sheet of talking points -- everybody in the White House, throughout the Cabinet agencies, allies up on Capitol Hill, the talking heads, the conservative commentators -- with one voice. They've been very effective at controlling the release of information to his advantage.

Is that Rove, or is that the president?

As with all things, a certain amount of speculation is required here, but this seems to me to be a managerial decision, and that is certainly a presidential thing. The president's priorities are how you organize things and how you run an enterprise without the ideas. So I think it's the president more than Karl who gets the credit or the blame for enforcing the loyalty, keeping discipline in the White House, honoring loyalty, suppressing any outward indications of dissent. ...

When 9/11 happens and everything seems to coalesce, at least for a period of time, did you feel the touch of Rove on anything that was happening?

No. I think what you felt in the early moments, at least after 9/11, was the absence of Rove and very much the presence of Karen Hughes. [The president was] speaking to the nation, bringing the nation together. I think Karl stepped back, certainly as they prepared for war in Afghanistan. He has plenty of things to say about welfare, economic policy and taxes. He's not a military guy. That's not to say that when it was time for the Iraq war that he [didn't] play a significant role in the rollout of that, but he did step back when it came time for the war in Afghanistan. He receded quite a bit as a public figure. And that's when we had Bush appealing to the broader American electorate, 97 percent public approval. ...

And you see him there because it needs to be sold to the electorate, to the American people?

Yes. And I don't want to characterize him as sort of sitting in a situation room deciding what the strategy is going to be with the United Nations or whether we were going to send in the Marines. But from our outside perspective, there was a time early in 2000, and maybe the middle of 2002, where it became very evident that "I'm going to use my political capital to advance my agenda." It's not that bipartisan, everybody-get-along agenda. We did that in Afghanistan. Now we're going to move along with this Iraq war, with the tax cuts.

Being an outsider, [I saw] that's where Rove the tactician is coming back into view. We have to go back to the sense of what is Karl's view of what was going to get the president re-elected: Galvanize the conservative base. I think that predates Sept. 11. There were reports, the leaked PowerPoint presentation about using the war on terror to the president's advantage. But Karl has always been about expanding, building the Republican majority, moving towards that realignment.

... What was happening after Sept. 11 was everybody was supporting the president, including all members of Congress, but he wasn't using it to further his agenda at all. It was a different agenda. Suddenly we're doing a Department of Homeland Security that he didn't want to do in the first place. Government expanding, expanding wildly -- it certainly wasn't part of his agenda. So a decision was made, or a series of decisions, to go back to using the political capital gain to push the causes that will build and motivate the Republican base. And that's what it did.

So it's midterm 2002: How involved do Rove and the president get in furthering the Republican cause?

That's actually an important period of time, 2002. You have the beginning of the rollout to the Iraq war starting Labor Day 2002. In fact, Andy Card made some comment he probably regretted at the time about how you don't wait until after the summer to roll out your new model. But 2002 was unusual in ... the extent to which a sitting president injected himself into an off-year election at considerable risk to himself.

Typically, the off-year election is a loser for the incumbent president. [Bush] really tied himself to all those candidates, which turned out to be a huge success for him and for the party. Now he, in doing that, decided to run on the war, to portray the Democrats as not caring about the security of the American people. ... So a decision was made, once again, to rally your Republican supporters out there and use the political capital -- not necessarily to bring the whole country together, but to use it for your political gain as he did in that election. A huge payoff for the president.

The downside of that was the end of all the natural immunity that came with Sept. 11. It started to fade in the middle of 2002, and by that election, he was wrapped into the bitterness of some extraordinarily nasty campaigns. The president was tied to these new candidates that he brought in. He was stronger than ever in his Republican caucus and more beloved. He got back the Senate majority at the cost of national unity.

Is that Rove?

Right. Every bit of what I've described has been Karl's playbook from 2001. We can't be privy to the behind-the-scenes meetings, but it's as if Karl had written a memo of how to do that, signed his name to it, and I'm certain it would look exactly like that.

It's 2000, during the campaign: Bush loses in New Hampshire to [Sen. John] McCain. What happened? How did Rove get New Hampshire so wrong?

Well, I don't know if the question is how did he get New Hampshire so wrong, or rather how he turned it around so quickly. In South Carolina we see the tactical flexibility that Rove has employed. Bush was running there on this campaign of inevitability -- enormous money machine, endorsements across the country. It's going to happen. So scrappy McCain does what you can only do in a place like New Hampshire: turnout in small precincts. You can spend a lot of time on the ground there, surprise everybody.

I was in McCain's hotel suite the night of the New Hampshire primary, and they were as surprised as anybody by what had occurred. So do we say Karl's strategy was wrong there? Possibly. Or possibly it was wrong for New Hampshire, but it quickly proved itself correct in South Carolina and Michigan and further on.

What they did from there is they got together and had a meeting, and rather than fire a bunch of aides and scramble for something new, he turned to what we're going to see a lot more of in the 2004 campaign: He turned to rally the conservatives against McCain very effectively. He appealed to the veterans in South Carolina, significantly turning veterans against a former POW, and also reaching out to mobilize the religious conservatives. It all gets lost now in a haze of time, but Bush, through the debates and other areas, was able to make an appeal to the conservative side of his party.

... [Then] a lot of nasty stuff happens that alleges Rove is behind all of it: [Rumors circulate that McCain] fathered a black child, is insane, his wife is on drugs. Is that the hand of Rove?

I don't know because I wasn't privy to that, but what I do know is that every time something bad happens, people assume Karl Rove had something to do with it. The Bush debate tape in the 2000 campaign that wound up in one of the top Gore advisers' office -- everybody immediately suspects it's Karl Rove up to some dirty tricks, trying to create a scandal. Turns out it was some Democratic-leaning assistant of Mark McKinnon, Bush's ad guy. But never mind -- Karl gets credit for that.

So what happened in South Carolina? We know the people who were doing it. It was a bunch of South Carolina hacks who were doing it. Now, were they close to Rove? Sure. You can always draw, you know, various degrees of separation and get just about anybody back to Karl Rove. Karl has [had] a dirty-tricks reputation for many, many years, and I can't sit here and say any particular one of those things is true. So is he capable of it? I'm sure he's capable of it. Is he responsible for it? I don't know.

We've talked about the switch from compassionate conservatism to conservatism. Explain Rove's beliefs, relationship and nurturing of that connection to the religious right.

Bush had a great deal of success with the religious conservatives in the 2000 campaign, largely based on talking about Jesus. I don't think it was an organizational thing at that level. What's happened since then with Karl and the religious conservatives is an organizational thing much more than a message. I wouldn't suggest that Karl's feeding the president biblical lines -- that would certainly be the cart leading the horse. Mike Gerson, who's a religious conservative himself, is the president's chief speechwriter. [He] takes care of that.

Now, where Karl's interest is is in the mechanics of this. And I think it's fair to say that religious conservatives, evangelical churches have become sort of the new labor unions. They've always been important in politics, certainly since Reagan. What's happened now [is] not only are they solidly Republican, but they've become sort of organizational hubs. Karl realized the importance or the significance of this early on, and he said, "This is the way we're going to motivate more of our base, more of the religious conservatives out there." The Republican National Committee and the campaign worked very closely with individual churches this time, getting church membership rolls [and] integrating that into the campaign.

There have been some allegations of church/state violations, but by and large we're talking about politically legal things. It's just that for the first time, it's the churches themselves, as opposed to the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition. It's a grassroots creation working to some extent as labor union locals used to work but don't work very effectively anymore. Karl was able to assiduously court not just the usual Pat Robertson suspects, but the small-time ministers, the televangelists, the leaders of these churches around the country. So I think we saw on Election Day just how powerful a force that was. It wasn't created overnight. This idea of a church-based mobilization did not exist before. ...

Did [Rove] actually do it? Is he getting involved? Specifically, does he go places and do things and see people, or does he call up [former head of the Christian Coalition] Ralph Reed and hire a handful of other people?

No, and I think what's important about what they did between the 2000 election and 2004 election is they didn't go with the usual suspects. It wasn't the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. It was an effort based not through any national Christian organization, but through the Republican National Committee, and to some extent through the Bush re-election campaign. They created this grassroots network on their own, using individual churches without any mobilizing national group. So Karl and his people very much created this. They didn't create the churches; the churches were there. They were highly motivated anyway, but they were able to use them organizationally, to get their volunteers that way.

It was no accident that every Bush rally just about that you went to, the tickets were handed out through churches. And the people getting up to speak, whatever they were speaking about, tax reform or anything else, it turned out they came there because of the church. So the audiences who came to these events, there were volunteers getting [voters] to the polls, [and though] certainly not the bulk of the contributions, they were a source of money as well. ...

Another thing we should note is that they said after that 2000 campaign that if people vote in the same percentages in 2004 as they did in 2000, because of shifting Hispanics and a lot of demographic changes, they would lose by several million votes. So they realized they absolutely had to do something to change the dynamic there in terms of minorities and religious conservatives.

How do you get those people to come to your side and stay there?

The president did this from the start, early in 2000. His first major decision … was his stem cell decision, which at first blush, we thought he was taking it down the middle and some sort of balance. You study it a little bit further, and the religious conservative groups are thrilled. Beginning with that they say, "OK, this is our guy; we were right about him."

There are variety of changes made by this administration that don't make headlines [but are] a much larger deal to the religious conservatives: giving the fetus more legal rights, and of course much more visible is the partial-birth abortion ban, which they'd tried for many years, and Bush was the guy who signed that into law. As the campaign came around, an obvious issue was the gay marriage issue, which turned out to be something of a sleeper issue. ... It was probably only in Ohio where it would be relevant. For this election, just Ohio turned out to be just enough.

A lot of it was done through the rhetoric in the president's speeches. They'd applaud cheerfully through the war on terror and "hunt him down and kill him" lines, but what they really loved was "We believe in a culture of life; we believe in traditional marriage," and all this. A secular American hearing that might say: "Oh, that's nice. He believes in life. Who doesn't?" But what the president's been able to do -- and this is largely because of Mike Gerson, his chief speechwriter -- is say [those] words that have particular meaning to the evangelicals. It's not code because there's nothing secret about it, but he's able to say things in a way that have a second meaning. And he's done this throughout the State of the Union addresses and major speeches, so he can speak to that group without anybody else realizing.

Is this the hand of Rove?

I think that gives Karl too much credit. He's no theologian, and Mike Gerson really is. No, I'd say Karl is the tactician of how you motivate the religious conservatives. But if it were trade unions who loved Bush, he would have organized them in that same way. He was dealing with the landscape as it was.

So what did he do in 2004? You talked about the shift from compassionate conservatism to plain, old-fashioned, red-white-and-blue conservatism. What did he do tactically so that the president could win the way that he won the last time? Is there anything different, 2000 to 2004, other than just do it better, do it harder, better organize them?

I don't think we can overstate this mobilization of the individual churches. Never happened before. Vast sort of untapped source of political energy in this country. The evangelicals didn't just come on board for him: They were campaigning; they were at the events; they were the poll volunteers; they were making the phone banks, the phone calls. You know, that's how you win elections. It was good old grassroots, door-knocking politics, but they tapped this group and organized it in a way that just had never been done to that extent before.

Religious conservatives, if they wanted to get into politics, [used to get] involved with Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition. No more. You're doing it right through your church. The Christian Coalition had no important effect on this election at all. It was all about your local Christian church. That turned out to be the rallying point.

So if you're a campaign guy who's used to ... direct mail, narrowcasting, how do you control [the local churches]? How do you mobilize them?

Well, arguably, direct mail is about finding the lists of the people who are most interested in hearing what you've got [to say]. You make appeals, as they did, and it caused little ripples and sensations along the way, asking churches for their membership directories. The church membership directory becomes the basis for this. The church leaders, lay leaders, clergy are volunteers in your campaign, spreading the word through their own networks. They have their networks. [Previously] they're just used for whatever it is, the potluck supper; now it's tied into the Republican National Committee. ...

A lot of what they did was improving the database and improving their get-out-the-vote efforts, where they felt that they had to do a good bit better job than the get-out-the-vote effort in 2000, which is one reason they didn't win by anything in the popular vote and didn't get the sort of victory that they were expecting. So it was all about that network.

When Bush called Rove "the architect," what did he mean?

As far as calling him "the architect," he was calling him "my brain." Perhaps that didn't play too well politically. It fed a perception Bush is trying to get away from.

"The architect" is an appropriate word because we're not necessarily talking about a Svengali here. We're talking about somebody who created the Republican realignment, a massive grassroots mobilization of people who weren't mobilized in such a way before. And Karl is the architect.

First of all, he was involved in the mechanics of that, and he was also involved in selecting the issues that would motivate that, ideally issues that would motivate them without mobilizing the other side, as these issues often do. So they were sort of deft at selection of the issues and in the presentation of the issues.

When we look out now with all the press and hype that this is it for the Democrats, they're done for 30 years, ... what do we watch for? What will be on Rove's plate?

... For Rove that means right now you're seeing a lot more push on immigration. They improved their numbers in a big way among Hispanics, but if they can get a majority of the Hispanics, the fastest growing segment in America, if they can do with Hispanics what they did with the evangelical Christians last time, that's two solid blocs moving forward.

Karl Rove is now talking and consulting regularly with John McCain, certainly [two] men who were not on speaking terms before. John McCain in 2008 could be Teddy Roosevelt. Instead of losing him and fragmenting this great Republican coalition they've built, maybe McCain can be that next vehicle for Karl Rove. So he's done his work with the religious conservatives, he's [brought] the Hispanics into the coalition. Maybe he can get some young folks with the Social Security reforms. [These are all] pieces of the puzzle that he's putting together.

And when we watch the midterms, is he focused on this? This is the kind of thing he's doing?

Of course he is. That's his job. The midterm of a second-term incumbent president, that election is historically awful. Clinton sort of defied this by having a narrow pickup in '98, largely the backlash of the [Monica] Lewinsky scandal, but they said quite candidly already, they really expect they could have some reasonable losses in their Congressional majority.

Maybe that's a game of lowering the expectations, but they do have quite a challenge to deal with, and they've also outlined an extraordinarily ambitious agenda. There are actually three large prongs: tax reform, Social Security reform, and cutting the budget deficit in half. Arguably you cannot achieve all three of those. They are somewhat at odds with each other. Bush has done well in the past with exceeding low expectations and now has the difficulty of having exceedingly high expectations. I'm sure Karl will figure out something.

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posted april 12, 2005

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