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He Got Out While the Getting Was Good
Back in those heady days of late summer 2002, Andrew Card, then the president's chief of staff, told The New York Times why the much-anticipated push for war in Iraq hadn't yet arrived."You don't introduce new products in August," he said, sounding like the mouthpiece for the Big Three automakers he once was. Sure enough, with an efficiency Detroit can only envy, the manufactured aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds rolled off the White House assembly line after Labor Day like clockwork.
Five summers later, we have the flip side of the Card corollary: You do recall defective products in August, whether you are Mattel or the Bush administration. Karl Rove's departure was both abrupt and fast. The ritualistic "for the sake of my family" rationale convinced no one, and the decision to leak the news in a friendly print interview (on The Wall Street Journal's op-ed page) rather than announce it in a White House spotlight came off as furtive.
Inquiring Rove haters wanted to know: Was he one step ahead of yet another major new scandal? Was a congressional investigation at last about to draw blood?
Perhaps, but the Republican reaction to Rove's departure is more revealing than the cries from his longtime critics. No Republican presidential candidates paid tribute to Rove, and, except in the die-hard Bush bastions of Murdochland present (The Weekly Standard, Fox News) and future (The Journal), the conservative commentariat was often surprisingly harsh. It is this condemnation of Rove from his own ideological camp - not the Democrats' familiar litany about his corruption, polarizing partisanship, dirty tricks, etc. - that the White House and Rove wanted to bury in the August dog days.
What the Rove critics on the right recognize is that it may be even more difficult for their political party to dig out of his wreckage than it will be for America. Their angry bill of grievances only sporadically overlaps that of the Democrats. One popular conservative blogger, Michelle Malkin, mocked Rove and his interviewer, Paul Gigot, for ignoring "the Harriet Miers debacle, the botching of the Dubai ports battle, or the undeniable stumbles in post-Iraq invasion policies," not to mention "the spectacular disaster of the illegal alien shamnesty." Malkin, an Asian-American in her 30s, comes from a far different place than the Gigot-Fred Barnes-William Kristol axis of Bush-era ideological lock step.
Those Bush dead-enders are in a serious state of denial. Just how much so could be found in The Journal interview when Rove extolled his party's health by arguing, without contradiction from Gigot, that young people are more "pro-life" and "free-market" than their elders. Maybe he was talking about 12-year-olds. Back in the real world of potential voters, the latest New York Times-CBS News poll of Americans aged 17 to 29 found that their views on abortion were almost identical to the rest of the country's. (Only 24 percent want abortion outlawed.)
That poll also found that the percentage of young people who identify as Republicans, whether free-marketers or not, is down to 25, from a high of 37 at the end of the Reagan era. Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, found that self-identified Republican voters are trending older rapidly, with the percentage over age 55 jumping from 28 to 41 percent in a decade.
Every poll and demographic accounting finds the Republican Party on the losing side of history, both politically and culturally. Not even a miraculous armistice in Iraq or vintage Democratic incompetence may be able to ride to the rescue. A survey conducted by The Journal itself (with NBC News) in June reported Republican approval numbers lower than any in that poll's two decades of existence. Such is the political legacy for a party to which Rove sold Bush as "a new kind of Republican," an exemplar of "compassionate conservatism" and the avatar of a permanent Republican majority.
That sales pitch, as we long ago learned, was all about packaging, not substance. The hope was that No Child Left Behind and a 2000 Republican convention stacked with break dancers and gospel singers would peel away some independent and black voters from the Democrats. The promise of immigration reform would spread Bush's popularity among Hispanics.
Another potential add-on to the Republican base was Muslims, a growing constituency that Rove's pal Grover Norquist plotted to herd into the coalition.
The rest is history. Any prospect of a rapprochement between the Republican Party and African-Americans died in the New Orleans Superdome. The tardy, botched immigration initiative unleashed a wave of xenophobia against Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country. The Muslim outreach project disappeared into the memory hole after 9/11.
Forced to pick a single symbolic episode to encapsulate the collapse of Rovian Republicanism, however, I would not choose any of those national watersheds, or even the implosion of the Iraq war, but the George Allen "macaca" moment. Its first anniversary fell, fittingly enough, on the same day last weekend that Mitt Romney bought his victory at the desultory, poorly attended Republican straw poll in Iowa.
A century seems to have passed since Allen, the Virginia Republican running for re-election to the Senate, was anointed by Washington insiders as the inevitable heir to the Bush-Rove mantle: a former governor whose jus'-folks personality, the Bushian camouflage for hard-edged conservatism, would propel him to the White House. Allen's senatorial campaign and presidential future melted down overnight after he insulted a Jim Webb campaign worker, the 20-year-old son of Indian immigrants, not just by calling him a monkey but by sarcastically welcoming him "to America" and "the real world of Virginia."
This incident had resonance well beyond Virginia and Allen for several reasons. First, it crystallized the monochromatic whiteness at the dark heart of Rovian Republicanism. For all the minstrel antics at the 2000 convention, the record speaks for itself: There is not a single black Republican serving in either the House or Senate, and little representation of other minorities, either. Far from looking like America, the Republican caucus, like the party's presidential field, could pass for a Rotary Club, circa 1954. Meanwhile, a new census analysis released this month finds that nonwhites now make up a majority in nearly a third of America's most populous counties, with Houston overtaking Los Angeles in black population and metropolitan Chicago surpassing Honolulu in Asian residents. Even small towns and rural America are exploding in Hispanic growth.
Second, the Allen slur was a compact distillation of the brute nastiness of the Bush-Rove years, all that ostentatious "compassion" notwithstanding. Bush and Rove are not xenophobes, but the record will show that their White House spoke up too late and said too little when some of its political allies descended into Mexican-bashing during the immigration brawl. Bush and Rove winked at anti-immigrant bigotry, much as they did at the homophobia they inflamed with their incessant election-year demagoguery about same-sex marriage.
Finally, the "macaca" incident was a media touchstone. It became a national phenomenon when the video landed on YouTube, the rollicking Web site whose reach now threatens mainstream news outlets. A year later, leading Republicans are still clueless and panicked about this new medium, which is why they, unlike their Democratic counterparts, pulled out of even a tightly controlled CNN-YouTube debate.
It took smart young conservative bloggers like a former Republican National Committee operative, Patrick Ruffini, to shame them into reinstating the debate for November, lest the entire Republican field look as pathetically out of touch as it is.
The rise of YouTube certifies the passing of Rove's era, a cultural changing of the guard in the digital age. Rove made his name in direct-mail fund-raising and with fierce top-down message management.
As the Internet erodes snail mail, so it upends direct mail. As YouTube threatens a politician's ability to rigidly control a message, so it threatens the Rove ethos that led Bush to campaign at "town hall" meetings attended only by hand-picked supporters.
It's no coincidence that this new culture is also threatening the Beltway journalistic establishment that celebrated Rove's invincibility well past its expiration date (much as it did James Carville's before him), extolling what Joshua Green, in his superb new Rove article in The Atlantic, calls the Cult of the Consultant. The YouTube video of Rove impersonating a rapper at one of those black-tie correspondents' dinners makes the Washington press corps look even more antediluvian than he is.
The recent Iowa straw poll was a more somber but equally anachronistic spectacle. Again, it's a young conservative commentator, Ryan Sager, writing in The New York Sun, who put it best: "The face of the Republican Party in Iowa is the face of a losing party, full of hatred toward immigrants, lust for government subsidies, and the demand that any Republican seeking the office of the presidency acknowledge that he's little more than Jesus Christ's running mate."
That face, at once contemptuous and greedy and self-righteous, is Karl Rove's face. Unless someone in his party rolls out a revolutionary new product, it is indelible enough to serve as the Republican brand for a generation.
© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Co.