If one had to sum up the legacy of Karl Rove as political adviser to the 43rd president, it could probably be done in four words: tactical brilliance, strategic blindness.
Though George Bush was not given the natural gifts of a Ronald Reagan, his victories in Texas, followed by successive victories in the presidential contests of 2000 and 2004, put him in the history books alongside Reagan, who won California and the presidency twice.
None of Bush’s wins were nearly so impressive as the Reagan landslides in the Golden State and the nation. But it is a testament to Rove that he and Bush never lost a statewide or national election in the four they contested from 1994 to 2004. Rove has two Super Bowl rings. How many political advisers can say as much?
But if Rove’s contribution to the career of George Bush will put him in the Hall of Fame, the Bush-Rove legacy for their party is worse than mixed. Rove wanted to be the architect of a new Republican majority. Instead, he and Bush presided over the loss of the Reagan Democrats and both houses of Congress.
The house Nixon and Reagan built, Bush and Rove tore down, leaving rubble in its place. Rove’s failure was a failure of vision. He and Bush believed the future of the party lay in adding to the Republican base the Hispanic vote, now the nation’s largest minority, approaching 15 percent of the population.
They went about it the wrong way.
Pandering to that voting bloc, Bush stopped enforcing the immigration laws and offered amnesty to 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens and the businesses that hired them. Bush and Rove were going to lure the Hispanic vote away from the Democratic Party by putting illegals on a path to citizenship.
But as we saw in June, when the nation rose up in rage against the Bush amnesty, the pair did indeed unite the GOP — against themselves, and they severed themselves from the Reagan Democrats and the country.
It was cynical politics, and it backfired, crippling the presidential candidacy of John McCain in the process.
But even before the disastrous immigration reform bill, Bush had become a zealot of NAFTA, GATT and most-favored-nation status for China. These have left his country with the worst trade deficits in history, put the United States $2 trillion in debt to Beijing and Tokyo, cost Middle America 3 million manufacturing jobs and arrested the income rise of the middle class, as our capitalist pigs and hedge-fund hogs have happily gorged themselves at the capital gains tax trough.
Bush’s original idea of "compassionate conservatism" was a fine one. But under him and Rove, compassionate conservative turned out to be code for a cocktail of Great Society Liberalism and Big Government Conservatism. How could professed admirers of Ronald Reagan think that by doubling the budget of the Department of Education the tests scores of school kids would inexorably rise?
Even earlier in the Bush years, the president, after the trauma of 9-11, had a Damascene conversion to neoconservatism, a neo-Wilsonian ideology and secular religion. Among its tenets: that we are a providential nation whose mission on earth is to liberate mankind and democratize the planet; that we are in a world-historic struggle between good and evil; that our triumph is to be accomplished by the robust use of American military power — beginning with the benighted nations of the Islamic Middle East that represent an existential threat to America, democracy and Israel.
Sometime between Sept. 11 and his axis-of-evil address, Bush sat down and ate of the forbidden fruit of messianic globaloney. Consuming it, he got up and committed the greatest strategic blunder in American history by ordering the invasion of a country that had not attacked us, did not threaten us and did not want war with us.
The Bush-Rove rationale: For our survival, we had to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that we now know it did not have.
The great political architects of the 20th century are FDR and Richard Nixon. After the three Republican landslides of the 1920s, FDR put together a New Deal coalition that controlled the White House for 36 years, with the exception of two terms for Gen. Eisenhower.
After the rout of the Republicans in 1964, Nixon pulled together a New Majority that held the White House for 20 of 24 years, racking up two 49-state landslides for Nixon and Reagan, even as FDR had won 46 states in 1936. In his re-election bid, Bush won 31 states.
In seeking a new GOP majority, Bush and Rove rejected the Nixon-Reagan model. Instead, they embraced the interventionism of Wilson, the free-trade globalism of FDR, the open-borders immigration ideas of LBJ and the budget priorities of the Great Society. It was a bridge too far for the party base.
Now, Rove walks away like some subprime borrower abandoning the house on which he can no longer make the payments. The Republican Party needs a new architect. The firm of Bush & Rove was not up to the job.