Monday, November 13, 2006

The Rove response to the '06 debacle: intentional spin, or clinical state of denial?

Ever notice how a big shot partisan operative will never admit error, even after he has just suffered an embarrassing defeat in full view of the entire nation? No matter how decisively the voters have stripped him naked, he nevertheless will insist, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, that he’s still decked out in his finest threads.

As Tony Soprano said during Season One, “The con never stops.”

I vividly recall the election of 2002, when the Democrats got their clocks cleaned, losing the Senate that they had held so briefly, losing further ground in the House, and losing a slew of important governorships – yet despite these realities, Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe declared, “It’s a great night for the Democrats.”

But Karl Rove is giving McAuliffe some very tough competition. I hadn’t planned to dwell again on Rove – he already earned a slot on my top five losers list for 2006 – but it’s worth examining his interview this weekend in Time magazine, because it is evidence, even now, of residual bunker spin in high places.

Whether President Bush’s political guru truly believes his fact-challenged attempts to explain away what happened last Tuesday, or whether he’s just spinning out of self-interest (to hang onto his ebbing genius aura, for instance), is almost immaterial. What matters is that the most influential strategist in the Bush White House has publicly chosen to play bad cop to Bush’s good cop. Bush is talking magnanimously about reaching across the aisle to the victorious Democrats – while his political adviser is saying that the Democratic win was no big deal.

The election results, Rove told Time’s Mike Allen, “are a transient passing thing,” because “the power of the underyling agenda of this president,” and “the power of the (GOP’s) ideas” remain unsullied. For instance, Rove didn’t think that Iraq was so important in this election; in his words, “Iraq does play a role, but not the critical central role.”

He put heavy blame on the corruption issue, talking as if the GOP sleaze on Capitol Hill was some distant development: “The profile of corruption in the exit polls was bigger than I'd expected. Abramoff, lobbying, Foley and Haggard [the disgraced evangelical leader] added to the general distaste that people have for all things Washington, and it just reached critical mass.”

Rove also offered some voter stats which are intended to prove that the GOP hung on to both chambers. Time reports: “A shift of 77,611 votes would have given Republicans control of the House, according to Bush's political team. And a shift of 2,847 votes in Montana, or 7,217 votes in Virginia, or 41,537 votes in Missouri would have given a Republicans control of the Senate.”

Regardless of whether this is all cynical spin or a clinical state of denial, the countervailing facts are abundant:

1. Iraq – and the president’s poor handling of the war – was listed as the most important issue, virtually all year in virtually every poll. It was again listed as the number one issue this weekend, in Newsweek’s post-election survey. Eighty-five percent of Americans said that the “major reason” for the Democratic victory was Bush’s war stewardship.

2. In citing the GOP corruption issue, and characterizing it as merely “all things Washington,” Rove skipped over his own central role. One of the most underreported stories in recent months was the autumn resignation of Rove aide Susan Ralston, who had acted as a frequent messenger between the White House and superlobbyist/convicted felon Jack Abramoff. According to a GOP House committee report, Abramoff had 485 contacts with the White House, and 69 through Ralston (who used to work for Abramoff). And a new book reports that Rove used to confer with Abramoff on street corners. Translation: Abramoff was not a distant aberration; rather, he was a key player in the GOP’s Washington political network of lobbyists and lawmakers, a network that Rove helped supervise.

3. And Rove was hardly a spectator in the Foley affair. Despite the fact that, by 2005, there was plenty of evidence floating around that Foley was chasing after underage boys, Rove reportedly talked a reluctant Foley into running for re-election this year. Foley told this to a friend, who told The New Republic.

4. As for his “if only there was a shift of votes in some locales” argument, that’s tantamount to the old saying that if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bump its ass so much. The fact is, the votes were the votes; indeed, the aggregate of all elections nationwide shows that - leaving aside the small handful of races when some House incumbents ran unopposed - Democratic House and Senate candidates won roughly 53 percent of the vote; the Republicans, roughly 45 percent.

(To refine a point I made the other day: Anyone can play the “if” game. If Ralph Nader had not been on the Florida ballot in 2000, and therefore had not siphoned away 93,000 votes, most of which would have gone to Al Gore, then it’s a fair bet that Bush’s 537-vote win would have been erased, and Rove would have regained his title as the most important political consultant in Austin, Texas.)

Checking the 2006 exit polls, this decisive aggregate victory for the Democrats is easy to explain: Nationwide, Hispanic voters (whom Rove has assiduously courted for his permanent GOP majority) broke for the Democrats this year by 70-30 percent (the GOP’s share in 2004 was higher, although the percentage is in dispute). Catholics, another longtime Rove target, voted Democratic by 56-44 percent, after having tilted toward the GOP two years ago. Working-class voters earning between $30,000 and $50,000, another Rove target, voted Democratic by 57-43 percent, after having split down the middle two years ago.

In other words, Bush’s architect lost ground virtually across the board. In his Time interview, he failed to mention the Democratic gains (in House, Senate, and/or gubernatorial seats) in Ohio, Missouri, Virginia, Montana, Indiana, Arizona, and Colorado – all of which he had checked off as red states in 2004.

But perhaps one race best sums up the current GOP predicament. Right now, the contest for Wyoming’s only House seat is still officially undecided. In deeply-red Wyoming, the home state of Dick Cheney, the Republican candidate is currently ahead by only 970 votes out of 186,000 cast – and this is because 71 percent of the state’s independent voters sided with the Democrat. The fact that the Republicans can’t even nail down a seat in Wyoming is stark evidence of the embarrassment that Rove refuses to publicly acknowledge.

So, in summation, the White House is purposely sending mixed signals. While Bush seemed humble last Wednesday when he said he had suffered a “thumpin,’” Rove is arguing to the contrary. Hence, the key question: Is Bush truly interested in pursuing a partnership with the Democrats, when his own political advisor is signaling publicly that the Decider has no reason to feel thumped?


In a new print column yesterday, I brought up the ’08 Republican presidential race, and toted up some reasons why John McCain might benefit from the party’s ’06 defeat. But I also questioned whether his “straight talking” proposal about sending more troops to Iraq would play well with an electorate that is increasingly receptive to phase-down scenarios.

Indeed, McCain restated his position yesterday on NBC: “I believe that there are a lot of things that we can do to salvage (the war), but they all require the presence of additional troops.” Gallup reported in June that only eight percent of Americans want to send more troops.

So, last question: Can McCain capture the middle of the electorate if he’s actually more hawkish than Bush?