Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I generally eschew writing about pure partisan politics. Mainly this is because that subject was something that interested me deeply in my teens and early twenties, a time before the last drop of spontaneity and authenticity had been wrung out out of American politics. Today, any well informed person can script the talking points that will come over the TV on the Sunday morning talking head shows, so sterile and homogenized, yet polarized, has public discourse become.

Nevertheless, I found James Carville's FT.com piece on Karl Rove interesting. The number of living folks who have run a presidential campaign would not fill even a small room but it is a room that would contain both Karl Rove and James Carville. Carville is spinning hard but prior to driving home his selected memes, he does offer up a tribute of sorts to one of the few men who counts as a peer of James Carville:

"Nationally he has pulled off some of the most unexpected and impressive victories of modern political history. (I will not be debating the 2000 election for the purposes of this article, but I also will not be crediting him with it, so let us just move on to the next cycle.)

Mr Rove picked up seats in what was an almost historically impossible context in 2002. Then in 2004, he engineered one of the most remarkable feats in American politics. He got Americans to re-elect a president who they really did not want to re-elect. Even the Republican defeat in 2006 was predictable and well within the range of historical norms so, by this sport’s standard of winning and losing, there is still no black mark on Rove’s record.

If we concluded our analysis in 2007 and confined our judgment merely to Mr Rove’s immediate electoral record, we would have no choice but to judge him a spectacular success. There is no doubt that Mr Rove won elections. He has perhaps one of the most remarkable win-percentages in modern American politics."

I've never been in awe of Karl Rove who took on a mythic (if demonic) and quasi -lightning rod quality in the Left blogosphere and was an understated presence on the Right ( perhaps because he had occasional meetings with top ranking conservative bloggers who were therefore loathe to annoy him). His sense of history always struck me as badly strained and Rove's ability as a political image-maker and message strategist paled next to that of Reagan consultants like Roger Ailes, Lyn Nofziger, Michael Deaver, Ed Rollins and David Gergen.

But the man knows how to win elections.

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Zenpundit I don't think you're right on this one. Firstly, look at the way the Rove machine positioned Bush for the 2000 campaign. Bush literally ran through a whole bunch of things as Governor of Texas so he could campaign on them in 2000 as a "reformer with results" (think about the big tax cuts which Bush rammed through). Also, the 2000 campaign managed successfully to position Bush as a "compassionate conservative" with a particular interest in education - something that practically no GOP candidate had done for years before. That message - that Bush was caring and competent - was extremely powerful. These were really big achievements - and they were basically about message and image. Rove was one of the few people that could combine strategic briliance, an understanding of the day-to-day trivia of the media, and a grasp of policy. He was without doubt a communications genius.
hi Anon,

I think you are correct that Rove positioned Bush for the presidency with great adroitness while Bush was still Governor. There was also remarkable follow-through in the early first term legislative battles over tax cuts and NCLB.

My problem is...what happened ? Long before Katrina the Bush White House lost it's message discipline and permitted, outside of the 2004 election battle, the critics to maintain a constant drumbeat. Public diplomacy and IO policy have ranged from terrible/incompetent ( former) to non-existent (the latter).

All of this can't be laid at Rove's door, obviously, but the Reagan WH rarely let the communications angle slip to this degree.
Hi again Mark... I agree with your point on public diplomacy. It's totally incompetent and has been for a long time. We seem to have a real difficulty creating any sort of meaningful, unified "Western" narrative about why our values are right. Like them or not (and obviously most do not), the neocons have a clear vision that is easy to articulate and, crucially, has a moral dimension. Apart from them, there's basically noone else saying anything... Yes, this might all be a reflection of the fact that there's often serious disagreement between ourselves on foreign and defence policy (think Lind vs. Barnett, not to mention all the left etc) but it's more than that - we are struggling with issues of basic competence in the way we project our message around the world. (If you're interested, Alastair Campbell's account of his time working for Tony Blair gives a real insight into this).

It would be very interesting if you developed this public diplomacy theme on your blog. It would fit nicely with your work on 4GW / Boyd / how organisations adapt and respond to pressure etc.
Ahem mate:

His sense of history always struck me as badly strained and Rove's...

I haven't an opinion in this, I am just unclear as to who "His" refers to here. Rove's, Carville?

My question, why do both of them actually look physically unpleasant?

My own answer coming to mind write after typing that is, if they were not, they'd have been candidates.
Hi Anon,

On rare occasions, I will get into IO and public diplomacy issues, I'll consider doing more in the future. In the meantime, I might suggest a few sites on my blogroll that write on this subject frequently:

for public diplomacy -MountainRunner, Beacon and Whilrledview. Sometimes, Duck of Minerva thought that is more academic IR theory perspective.

for IO I'd go to Small Wars Council, the SWJ Blog and Swedish Meatballs.

Hi Col

Sorry, I was referring to Rove, not Carville. Rove is well read in American political history but tends to interpret events in light of historical analogies that I myself probably would not use.

I think you are quite right about looks being a barrier to political office ( unless you are already some kind of celebrity, like a professional athlete).
TV has spoiled our perceptions. Even " unattractive" faces among actors and news anchors tend to be above average in appearance. The mildly homely now appear to us like Dick Tracy villains.
Ah, that reads more clearly with that clarification.

Well, back to my credit obsessing.
"His sense of history always struck me as badly strained and Rove's ability as a political image-maker and message strategist paled next to that of Reagan consultants like Roger Ailes, Lyn Nofziger, Michael Deaver, Ed Rollins and David Gergen.

But the man knows how to win elections."

Very, very insightful. To put it another way: he was very good at crafting images of his opponents, but not as successful with Bush. And that left Bush incredibly invulnerable when the policies started to fail...
Thank you very much, Dr. Dan.

Rove sort of reminds me of Nixon's orginal campaign guru, Murray Chotiner, one of the fathers of negative advertising, who favored the strong and hard offense in politics.

Chotiner though, was never as influential with Nixon as was Rove with Bush and Nixon basically sidelined him for the 1968 election ( the " New Nixon" theme was probably Nixon's most positive campaign in his long political career).
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