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Frum on Rove:

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum offers his take on Karl Rove's legacy:

As a political strategist, Karl Rove offered a brilliant answer to the wrong question.

The question he answered so successfully was a political one: How could Republicans win elections after Bill Clinton steered the Democrats to the center?

The question he unfortunately ignored was a policy question: What does the nation need — and how can conservatives achieve it? . . .

This was a politics of party-building and coalition-assembly. It was a politics that aimed at winning elections. It was a politics that treated the problems of governance as secondary. But of course governance is what incumbents get judged on — and since 2004, the negative verdict on President Bush's governance has created a lethal political environment for Republican candidates.

Inspiring rhetoric and solemn promises can do only so much for an incumbent administration. Can it win wars? Can it respond to natural disasters? Can it safeguard the nation's borders? Can it fill positions of responsibility with worthy appointees? If it cannot do those things, not even the most sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation can save it. . . .

Building coalitions is essential to political success. But it is not the same thing as political success. The point of politics is to elect governments, and political organizations are ultimately judged by the quality of government they deliver. Paradoxically, the antigovernment conservatives of the 1980s took the problems of government far more seriously than the pro-government conservatives of the 2000s.

I think Frum gets it about right. On most issues, the Bush Administration elevated the politics of obtaining and maintaining political power over articulating and advancing a desirable policy agenda, to the detriment of the nation and (eventually) the Administration itself.

Elliot123 (mail):
I would be interested in the articulated policy agendas of the past few presidents. What are they?
8.14.2007 4:44pm
Kate1999 (mail):
Elliot123, Reagan was about small government in the regulatory area combined with spending on defense; Clinton was initially about health care, and later balancing the budget. Etc.

Rove's difficulty is that the President he was serving has no interest in policy. Bush is about faith, gut, and instinct: it's not like that lends itself well to wonkish policy agendas. So you pair Rove's political instincts with an absence of interest in policy from the President .....
8.14.2007 4:51pm
Shelby (mail):
I have trouble articulating a policy agenda of George Bush (Bush I). No New Taxes? Improve international relations? Roughly imitate Reagan but without the telegenic charm?
8.14.2007 4:54pm
John (mail):
"Detriment of the nation"? I think we are doing pretty well. We have been safe from foreign attacks. Our economy is booming. Unemployment is very low, and, I think, for most Americans, life is very good indeed.

While it is probably true that building political strength was more important to Rove than other issues, that does not distinguish this Administration from the previous one, or, probably, from any political actor of any stripe at any time. Who was the last altruistic president? Washington?
8.14.2007 4:55pm
uh clem (mail):
It's like a car company who lets the sales guys take over the engineering department. Yes, they'll sell lots of cars, but they'll soon have a lot of unhappy customers when nothing works the way it should.

We were warned about this by John Dululio almost 5 years ago. What took everyone so long to catch on?
8.14.2007 4:55pm
steve lubet (mail):
Robert Novak also has an interesting column on Rove today.
8.14.2007 4:56pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Kate,

OK. Those are broad and fair categories. In like manner, might we say Bush has been about tax reduction, social security reform, and defeating Islamic terrorists?
8.14.2007 5:07pm
EH:
I have to say that given the example of the Bush Adminstration over the past 7 years, I am not looking forward to more one-party rule after the elections next year.
8.14.2007 5:09pm
Steve P. (mail):
So often these things feel a bit like, "here are the facts. Here is a story that could go with the facts. Does it make sense? Write an article."

This President certainly has a clear set of policy objectives, one of which is mirrored by almost all Americans — defeat the terrorists. Just because a majority of Americans have become disillusioned with a) the President's policies, or b) the President's ability to enact his policies, doesn't mean that Rove wasn't in favor of building a distinct set of policy objectives that resonated with the public, and then trying to achieve those objectives.

After all, President Bush was reelected in 2004. That's a pretty clear signal that the public liked at least some of the policy-enaction effort.
8.14.2007 5:11pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
I agree with John. On the whole, we're doing pretty well based on the historical standards we usually judge such things on. The war in Iraq is the big negative, obviously, and it certainly could have been handled better. But that is as much a fault of the senior military leadership as it is Rumsfeld and Bush. Rumsfeld's and his chosen leadership's ideas may prove to have been wrong but that hardly means they were planned with a primary eye toward pleasing some political base.

Many conservatives are upset with the President not because he's done badly, particularly, but because they wanted him to do more. They're angry at him for capitulating, as they see it, to the Democrats, or to Democratic ideas, such as the Prescription Drug Bill, the Harriet Meiers nomination, and immigration reform. At the same time, the President has gotten extraordinarily little credit from the Democrats on those occasions on which he has reached out to them. Democrats were happy to sit on the sidelines recently to watch Republican fratricide on the immigration bill. Remember way back at the beginning of the term, when the President tried to show some grace and courtesy by renominating 2 Clinton judicial nominees that weren't acted on before Clinton's term ended? That was repaid by the Democrats with bile and venom and stonewalling of decent appointees like Judge Pickering.

I don't think Frum's analysis is accurate or fair. I think the President has been a pretty unsuccessful communicator, on the whole, but I don't agree that he has been so slavish towards his base as some try to paint him. It takes 2 sides to make a fight, and there's plenty of blame to throw around.
8.14.2007 5:17pm
CJColucci:
Why are so many people saying now what was obvious long before? Why were the few who said it then dismissed?
8.14.2007 5:28pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Clinton's presidency was about sex with interns and appointing nominees with illegal alien nannys. Bush 1's presidency was about barfing on the Japanese. Reagan's was about catsup as a vegetable.
8.14.2007 5:37pm
The Divagator (mail) (www):
I think this gets it about right. More than harming the Administration (who cares?), it has done irreparable damage to conservatism. In a country where self-proclaimed conservatives outnumber self-proclaimed liberals, conservatism should far more confident, competent, and engaged with real problems. Instead, it is weak, constantly on the defense, and disengaged from the major questions of the day. This is NOT an endorsement of liberalism; merely a views of a man without a party.
8.14.2007 5:56pm
Justin (mail):
Well, I think they aggressively went after a non-desireable policy agenda. Your post is interpretable to the RedStateish, absurd argument that Bush is a great president who can't articulate his great achievements in Iraq and at home - but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt that your final, somewhat abstract sentence meant to focus on "desireable" rather than "articulating."
8.14.2007 6:24pm
Justin (mail):
John, here are some latest poll numbers

"Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?"

8/1-2/07 - Satisfied 24% Dissatisfied 69%

"All in all, do you think things in the nation are generally headed in the right direction, or do you feel that things are off on the wrong track?"

7/27-30/07 - Right Direction 19% Wrong Track 67% Mixed 11%

TIPP Economic INDICATOR - 8/6-12/07 - 49.5 (Bush Admin low, 41.2 in September 2005, Bush Admin high, 62.2 in March 2002. During the 2/2001 recession (Bush's earliest numbers, not saying it was Bush's fault), the number was 53.9

ABC CONSUMER COMFORT INDEX, 8/5/07 - -9 (low, -28 June 2003, high 1, multiple, January 02 (earliest I can find info on) -13)

Same information for the Conferenec Boared Consumer Confidence Index.

In other words, the people as a whole don't think this economy is doing any better than when it was in recession when Bush started office, and they really hate the direction the country is going. But yea, John, other than that life is very good for most Americans.
8.14.2007 6:35pm
Shake-N-Bake:
PatHMV, if conservatives are seeing what Bush has done as capitulating to the Democrats or Democrat ideas, they just haven't paid attention, because Bush's positions on the Prescription Drug Bill and immigration are 100% consistent with what he has been the entire time on domestic priorities -- pro-business above all other goals. At least from what I see, being pro-business above all else is hardly something I think people associate with a "Democrat idea". The Miers nomination was attacked by Republicans and Democrats alike, so I wouldn't say he capitulated to the Democrats there. Nominating Roberts and Alito hardly was capitulation to the Democrats.

If they didn't want a president who would dish out so-called 'corporate welfare' like the drug bill, and didn't want a president who would nominate a close confidante to the Supreme Court, then conservatives should have nominated someone else. Being pro-business and pro-crony was already well established in Bush's track record, so it hardly should have been shocking when he did these kinds of things as president.
8.14.2007 6:40pm
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
Justin,
On the Right track/ wrong track, how useful of an indicator is it? Individuals like myself could argue that the country is on a wrong track because Bush has tried to work too much with Democrats (No Child Left Behind, Prescription Drug Bill, amnesty) and has not been conservative enough. Without knowing why they think the country is on the wrong track, the question is of limited value.
8.14.2007 6:47pm
michael (mail) (www):
The mixture of snippets of idealism and calculation created a kind of stroboscopic signalling of truth emanating from the White House. People intuitively recognized this and it invited projection as to what the real truth was, contributing to 'Bush derangement syndrome.'
8.14.2007 8:11pm
Houston Lawyer:
When Bush acts out of pure political calculation, like with the steel tarriffs, it is very clear. Most often, he works from his own convictions. Some of his convictions are conservative, such as tax cutting, and others are not. He has stuck to his guns on unpopular issues, unlike our past president. If the press regarding the war keeps getting better, expect his polls to as well.

People might feel better about the economy if the press actually reported any good economic news. Somehow, the dot.com boom was all because of Bill Clinton. Bush gets no credit for the economy unless something bad happens.
8.14.2007 8:35pm
plunge (mail):
"Remember way back at the beginning of the term, when the President tried to show some grace and courtesy by renominating 2 Clinton judicial nominees that weren't acted on before Clinton's term ended? That was repaid by the Democrats with bile and venom and stonewalling of decent appointees like Judge Pickering."

Oh good grief. Hello fantasy-land. The one thing even _Republicans_ think Bush lacked was "grace and courtesy." The idea that he was interested in playing nice with Democrats in the start, but they were mean to him is pure poppycock from start to finish.
8.14.2007 8:45pm
Mr. Impressive (mail):
As a liberal Democrat, I have to say that I like Bush personally. I wish he had been a better President. He is not all that articulate, but he is at least principled.

I think his big problem was being too idealistic and not being in touch with reality enough. From "Mission Accomplished" to you "Heck of a job Brownie." He could have used just a touch of realism to supplement his optimism. Optimism is a good thing, but it is a problem when it is not tempered by realism.

I also think that Bush was way too loyal to and not critical enough of his subordinates. He kept Scott McClellan on as Press Secretary and Rumsfeld on as Defense Secretary for far too long. The inarticulate and frankly annoying McClellan did significant damage to Bush's image, which in turn affected his ability to influence policy. There is no bully pulpit with this administration. Tony Snow should have been made Press Secretary much earlier.

As the case of David Frum illustrates, many of his subordinates have not reciprocated with the same loyalty that Bush showed them. Why would he sacrifice so much for them?? Again, it is the same optimism and lack of realism that led Bush to defer and trust his staff too much. It is one thing to delegate, but you also have to supervise with a skeptical eye. Instead, Bush's optimism seems to lead him to believe that his subordinates would do the right thing without closer supervision. This is not true. People are not as loyal as you think. Also, they sometimes have very different ideas about what the right thing to do is than you do.

I think you see the same thing with Bush and polls. He brags about not paying attention to polls. Well, it certainly is a good thing to govern the country by principle and not based on superficial polls. People want a leader. But, the problem with Bush was that he went from the correct conclusion that (1) "polls shouldn't determine policy" to the incorrect conclusion that (2) "polls do not matter." But polls do matter. It is important for a President to take actions to increase his public support if he is going to enact his agenda. The reason that immigration reform failed is because Bush had used up all his political capital and thus was not able to apply the pressure that he needed to on recalcitrant lawmakers. What Bush should have done is cooperate with Democrats to punish Republicans who did not go along with immigration reform in the budget.

Bush really could have been a good President. He had the right stuff. He was principled. But, he also let his excessive optimism blind him to certain less pleasant realities and he thus failed to take action when he should have.

People like David Frum are not loyal. They should be watched with hawk eyes.
8.14.2007 9:24pm
michael (mail) (www):
Re: Houston Lawyer: 'it is very clear.'

Clear? In Texas, Governor Bush put forward a school reform finance package. In it, he managed to exclude from higher taxes the Dell's, the Basses (the richest interests). The conservative business groups had been inclined to negotiate on business taxes. Seeing that they were going to be, in part, arguing a populist point that 'the rich weren't paying their fair share,' they asked their lobbyists to ask 'their' legislators just to torpedo the whole thing which is what happened. Bush walked away with credit for attempting a school finance reform. Clever, yes; clear, only to the ignorant.
8.14.2007 10:50pm
Randy R. (mail):
A deeply divided country, a president who'se best response after 9/11 was to to go shopping, a never ending war that always is 'getting better', a completely destroyed city due to incompetence, a large chuck of the people without health insurance, stagnation of wages for workers --

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
8.15.2007 10:44am
Randy R. (mail):
The whole point of the Rove/deLay/Norquist/Fox news machine was to create a permanent Republican majority, and complete control over all three branches of government.

By Rove's own standards, he of course failed. By as always with this adminsitration, why hold anyone accountable? Just keep changing the goal posts, and you always win.
8.15.2007 10:46am
Invisible Man (mail):
Bush really could have been a good President. He had the right stuff. He was principled. But, he also let his excessive optimism blind him to certain less pleasant realities and he thus failed to take action when he should have.


I think that this is little more than wishful thinking. Bush has shown very little interest and talent for governing, while he, like his consultant Rove, love the campaigning aspects. The ability to get elected doesn't always dovetail with the ability to govern. Bush demonstrated from the start that he would hold a loose reign over this govt., and the results back that up. He wasn't that interested that FEMA was working, or that his tax cuts might be too much for our government. He wasn't that interested in planning for the War and its aftermath, just that he could get the public to go along with his motivations. Bush would have been a 1-term president without 9/11 because he is just about as unfit an example that our nation has had for someone ready to govern an entire country.
8.15.2007 11:38am
Orielbean (mail):
The odd thing was how he ran his Texas governorship, and managed his cabinet and his policy very clearly. When he got the "promotion", he appeared to have lost that same ability.

His immigration amnesty was a holdover from his Texas term, and was articulated clearly, even though I see how it encourages lawbreaking in return for a huge below-minimum-wage labor pool.
8.15.2007 12:32pm
DiverDan (mail):

The question he answered so successfully was a political one: How could Republicans win elections after Bill Clinton steered the Democrats to the center?

The question he unfortunately ignored was a policy question: What does the nation need — and how can conservatives achieve it? . . .


But isn't that the central conundrum of any democratic system of government? You cannot govern unless you first get elected. Therefore, answering the second, and more important, question of what policies are needed before you get elected is an exercise in futility. Rove did what needed to get done in the first instance, get Republican candidates elected; that was his primary job. The fact that Republicans failed to govern wisely or well should not be laid at Rove's feet.

In my view, the failure ascribed to Rove by David Frum is a consequence of two factors: (1) the nature of the American electorate, where the vast majority of the votes needed to get a candidate elected (at least to national office, and, in a large majority of States, to Statewide office as well) come from an uninformed electorate who are unwilling to invest the time and effort to know the facts and understand the policy alternatives, voters who are interested in and swayed by the glib fifteen second sound bite; and (2) a general unwillingness of politicians (as well as the media) to spend time and effort to fully educate the electorate on the nature of the problems and the policy alternatives in order to convince them that an unpopular course of action is either right or necessary.

A prime example of this is the ticking time bomb of the actuarial underfunding of Social Security and Medicare -- only a truly delusional politician can honestly deny that the Government simply will not be able to afford the benefits that are currently being provided to seniors (and implicitly promised to the workers paing substantial FICA taxes). Yet politicians know very well that the vast majority of younger voters (i.e., from 18 to 45), who are paying for current benefits and will bear the brunt of the sacrifice required in the future when such benefits become unsustainable, have neither the attention span nor inclination to learn about such astract concepts as actuarial underfunding, while older voters are influenced by groups such as AARP to kill any attempt to reform social security and clamor for more and more current benefits (i.e., the Medicare Prescription Drug benefits). So, what do you do when politicians who might propose or support the right policy response simply cannot get elected?
8.15.2007 2:00pm
Crunchy Frog:

The reason that immigration reform failed is because Bush had used up all his political capital and thus was not able to apply the pressure that he needed to on recalcitrant lawmakers. What Bush should have done is cooperate with Democrats to punish Republicans who did not go along with immigration reform in the budget.


Lawmakers were recalcitrant because their constituents were hopping mad that they would even consider such a stupid idea. Bush wasted valuable political capital fighting for a (rightfully) lost cause that he could have had for use now to keep Congress from abandoning Iraq when it is finally showing signs of improvement.
8.15.2007 3:31pm
Randy R. (mail):
"Bush wasted valuable political capital fighting for a (rightfully) lost cause that he could have had for use now to keep Congress from abandoning Iraq when it is finally showing signs of improvement."

The war has been "finally showing signs of improvement" for at least four years. We "turned the corner" about three years ago, remember?
8.15.2007 8:56pm
keypusher (mail):
I always thought Herbert Hoover got a bum rap. He was baffled by the Great Depression, but so was pretty much every other leader in the world.

The Iraq war, on the other hand, was completely gratuitous. Yes it was badly carried out, but it never should have happened at all and probably would have ended in disaster even if it had been executed perfectly. It was morally wrong, geopolitically inexpedient and fiscally imprudent. It did enormous harm to the country. It's hard to think of anything any president did, of his own free will, that's even halfway as bad. Watergate really is a third-rate burglary by comparison.
8.16.2007 7:22pm