I had the pleasure recently of attending a lecture sponsored by the American Jewish University. The lecture took place at the Universal Amphitheatre, and the speaker was political consultant Karl Rove.
I am well aware that people hear his name and immediately jump to conclusions. These people may be surprised that he is human, flesh and blood, and a nice person. He is exceptionally bright, and very self effacing.
I took crystal clear notes. Unfortunately, my black clad, swashbuckling alter ego “El Dorko,” lost them. Several failed attempts to retrieve them, followed by a significant amount of Presidential sized expletives, did nothing to solve the problem.
So for those that have failed to lower their standards when reading my column, I warn these people again to do so.
Thankfully, I did not forget everything. With that, I bring the cryptic version of the wisdom that is Karl Rove.
“Running for President means that half your time will be spent raising money. The other half will be spent campaigning, with 80% of that time spent in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.”
For those who see Rove as a puppet master pulling strings, Rove made it clear that he knew who the boss was, and it was not him. The President has nicknamed him “Boy Genius,” and “Turd Blossom.” In fact, when Rove would enter the room, President Bush would say to another subordinate, “That idea is so f-ing bad that it must be something Rove came up with.” Sometimes President Bush would say to Rove or one of his other staffers, when they would ramble in business meetings, “Y’all think this is worth wasting the President’s time over?”
Yet Rove is a political animal and a political junkie. He got hooked as a youngster, and officially became a full blown addict in 1968, when he went to an event. To see Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace all on the same stage was mind blowing for him.
He is grateful to his colleagues. “We joy in our friends, we learn from our enemies, and we develop our character through our colleagues. I had a fabulous time working at the White House because I had great colleagues.”
In the introduction preceding his speech, the speaker made a lighthearted joke at Mr. Rove’s expense. When Rove took the stage, he began by thanking people. He then turned to the man who introduced him and said, “To show my appreciation, tomorrow I will be taking you to Guantanamo Bay.”
In the middle of the speech, a cell phone would not stop going off. It was a beeping sound. Rove looked around and said, “I’m scared.” It continued, and he said, “Ok, now I am really scared.” He checked his own phone, which was off. He proudly showed off his I-phone by saying. “I have an I-Phone, which means I’m cool.” It turned out that the phone belonged to the fellow who introduced him, causing Rove to say, “Ok, I am not waiting until tomorrow. As soon as this speech is done, you are bound for Guantanamo Bay.”
The audience genuinely enjoyed his humor. His speech was deliberately non-partisan. He spoke about the process of running for President.
Before he spoke (I know I am jumping around, you try winging things with no notes), the person who introduced him asked how many democrats were in the audience. He then asked for the number of republicans. The audience was about split down the middle. The fellow then said, “This concludes the audience participation aspect of this evening. This is a lecture series, not a Townhall meeting.” The audience laughed, but the message was clear. The audience was completely respectful the entire evening. Perhaps the overwhelming number of police officers had something to do with it.
Mr. Rove does not analyze politics city by city. He does it block by block. He pointed out that “6 in 10 people vote. 4 in 10 people do not. The 4 in 10 that do not vote are the same as you and me. They might be more black, more poor, and more young, but they are the same. They also would most likely vote in the same percentages as the 6 in 10 who already vote.”
It is for this reason that he also said, “Ignore Richard Nixon. To try and run to the extreme in the primary and then run to the center in the general election is wrong. You have to have a consistent message that will play to people in both elections.”
He also rejected the idea of playing to current voters. “You have to expand your appeal. You have to turn out new people.” He pointed out that John Kerry in 2004 had millions more voters than Al Gore in 2000. The difference was that President Bush increased his vote total by about 20%, which was enough.
Rove also offered an interesting battle tactic. “Don’t attack your opponent’s strengths. Attack what your opponent thinks are his strengths, but are actually his weaknesses. John Kerry ran as a military hero reporting for duty. He thought this was his strength. His career has been as an anti-war protester. He voted for the 87 billion before he voted against it. We were able to use that.”
Rove’s knowledge and obsession with crunching the numbers was a primary reason that George W. Bush won West Virginia twice, despite democrats controlling that state for generations. From the gun owners to the coal miners, Karl Rove read the numbers. He refused to cede the state. He challenged the republican party in West Virginia. He told them that for every dollar they raised, the national party would bring in much more. West Virginia republicans were not used to even seeing national leaders, much less their money. Rove kept his word regarding the financial commitment. Republicans were able to compete in what was thought to be a one party state, and the state flipped.
The moderator of the event was Dr. Robert Wexler, the President of American Jewish University. For the sake of full disclosure, I was a student at what was then known as the University of Judaism. Although Dr. Wexler’s politics are more in line with the majority of American Jews than mine are, he has always been friendly with me. I have a deep respect for him, and he himself has agreed to do an interview with me. So while some of the questions were partisan in nature, they were asked in the classy manner that Dr. Wexler conducts all of his interviews.
I mention this because while Dr. Wexler and Mr. Rove are different ideologically, they both want to build political bridges. Mr. Rove wants to get people enthused in politics, which cannot be done if half the audience walks out in disgust. Dr. Wexler has to run an entire university, which cannot be done effectively if ideology gets in the way. Both men had to raise a lot of money, and neither man would say that a person’s money was no good if it came from across the political aisle.
As for the questions, Dr. Wexler did want to know about the 2000 election, specifically the bitter South Carolina primary between George W. Bush and John McCain. Rumors were spread that John McCain had fathered a black baby out of wedlock. Rove gave a passionate and heartfelt answer.
“That story came from one professor at Bob Jones University. It did not come from our campaign. What always surprised me was that McCain spun it as a negative instead of a positive. John and Cindy McCain went to Asia and adopted a black child, a beautiful child that is now a teenager. It was a beautiful thing to do, and they should have shared that story. We were surprised that they instead went after us when it was one nutty professor that floated the rumors.”
When asked about his current relationship with McCain, he stated that it was good. He mentioned that in 2004, “McCain stepped up for us big time.” The most fun on the campaign was when they went to rallies in the Florida Panhandle. “This was Bush Country, where the President routinely won 70% of the vote. We drove by in the bus and there were thousands of people lined up to see us. McCain got so excited on the bus that he kept hitting my arm. It hurt. He asked if campaigning was always like this. It was raining all day, and the people still came out. Then we got to a rally in Florida with 25,000 people, and the sun came out. It was just a great night. He told stories of his youth involving a fast red car, alcohol, and beautiful women. He was a wild man as a naval officer. We then went to a couple other rallies, and it was just a great couple of days.”
Dr. Wexler asked if the favor would be returned in 2008 by President Bush.
“Absolutely. President Bush will help in any way he can. However, the best thing he can do is exit the stage and stay behind the scenes. He should hold fundraisers. He can raise a lot of money.”
One point Rove kept hammering is that “Americans are forward looking. They are not backward looking. Elections are about the future, not the past.”
He was an absolute believer that outgoing Presidents should get off the stage. “Ronald Reagan only did one public event for the first President Bush. President Bush stayed out of sight when his term ended. His successor did not. President Bush should. The election in 2008 is not about him. It is about John McCain and whoever his democratic opponent will turn out to be.”
Rove also mentioned that he donated the maximum allowable contribution of $2300 to the McCain campaign. He was used to raising money, but did not realize fully how expensive politics was until he had to write that check and explain it to his wife.
Dr. Wexler asked him, “Are you that good a political consultant that you could get Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, and what would you do?”
Rove replied, “Yes I am, and I’m not telling.”
When the laughter subsided, he elaborated. Absolutely I could develop a plan for them to win. You have to do that with your opponent to then develop a counterattack. In 2004 we had a plan for John Kerry to win the election. We were surprised that he did not run according to that plan.”
As for 2008, he said, “I am going to enjoy life away from the campaigns. I can go on the lecture circuit, promote my book that is going on sale for $29.95 by Simon and Schuster.”
He mentioned that twice to laughter, before again saying, “By the way, this is still my I-Phone. Again, I’m cool.”
When asked if he would consider helping any republican campaigns, he replied, “I might already be helping a campaign from the sidelines. You never know. I’m not telling.”
When asked about how the democratic race was dragging out, he replied, “I planned that. I am actually consulting for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but neither one knows I am helping the other one.”
Some would infer that Rove enjoys being seen as the evil mastermind lurking from the shadows. Actually, like most people, he would rather be liked for being a nice guy. However, his attitude is that if people are going to say awful things about you, those things might as well be true.
Dr. Wexler asked Rove if there were times when he and President Bush disagreed, and who was right more often. Rove was humble and folksy in his response.
“We have disagreed many times, and I was right some of the time, but usually President Bush was. One thing I got wrong was Vice President Cheney. I gave President Bush six reasons why Cheney should not be the choice for Vice President. President Bush cut through each point, and in the end, I agreed. President Bush then turned to Dick Cheney and asked, ‘So what do you think of Karl Rove?’”
When asked about how the democrats had much larger turnout, and therefore a decisive advantage, Rove showed why he is such an expert.
“John McCain is leading among republicans 80%-10%. Barack Obama is only leading among democrats 74%-18%. This means that McCain is leading Obama in crossover votes by 2:1. McCain is leading Hillary in this category by 3:1. These votes are important because when you expand your base with a new voter, you are gaining one vote. When you get a voter to flip, you are gaining two votes, because you are gaining one, and the other side is losing one. After a tough stretch, McCain seems to have republicans locked up, and that is helping him.”
Rove also made it clear that substance is critical. Style will not get it done. JFK was a great speaker, but he had big, bold ideas. Reagan was a great speaker, but had a clear vision.
“Voters are not stupid. The masses are not @sses. The media are interested in process. Voters are interested in what you are going to do. The problem is that the media gets bored much quicker than the voters. This leads to discussions about process. Candidates cannot fall into this line of campaigning. They must campaign on ideas.”
While style cannot be enough to win by itself, in today’s internet world, a lack of style or misstep can bury a campaign. “Just go on the internet and see Senator George Allen say the word ‘Macaca.’ Go on You-Tube and watch the video of ‘M.C. Rove.’”
When asked about the problems facing the Clinton campaign, Rove reiterated that one democratic candidate was talking about the future, while the other candidate was harkening back to the past. It did not matter whether or not the past was seen as good or bad. Voters are forward looking. He also pointed out that Barack Obama was doing something smart by bringing new voters into the process. This was an advantage because there was no guarantee that they would support any other candidate.
Another thing that Obama did right was that when it came time to deliver a major post primary speech, he used a teleprompter, while other candidates on both sides used notes. The teleprompter was out of view, but it allowed Obama to remain crisp, cool, and polished. Notes simply do not work as well according to Rove. I wouldn’t know. I do everything from memory. I already apologized. Let it go.
Another point Mr. Rove made was that raising money alone will not do it. The only people who seem to spend more than members of Congress are political consultants. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had a high “burn rate.” Mr. Rove stated that one trouble with campaigning is that “at the end, a losing candidate is broke. In fact, almost all of the candidates at the end are broke. The best thing that happened to John McCain was that his initial campaign team burned through his money. He then fired the guys who mismanaged his money. He ran a guerilla campaign, which might have been the best style of campaign for him to run.”
This brought up another issue for candidates. “You must have a plan. You will have to alter the plan and adapt, but you cannot develop a plan on the fly. You must have a plan. You must have a team that knows what they are doing. Most importantly, the consultants must care about you. Losing candidates often have consultants that leave, and then write a tell all book trashing their former boss. Those people don’t truly care about helping their candidate.”
Shifting gears, Dr. Wexler brought up the Iraq War.
This allowed Karl Rove to be at his very best. He mentioned several quotes offering a full throttled endorsement of going to war that were offered by Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry. Mr. Rove truly relished separating President Bush from craven political opportunists that shift with the political winds.
Dr. Wexler also asked why President Bush only had between 22-25% of the Jewish vote despite his Pro-Israel position.
Mr. Rove was candid. “It can be frustrating, but we have made inroads in many communities. We had 44% of the Latino vote in 2004. We improved among Catholics and women. We had 20% of the Jewish vote in 2000, and increased it to 25% in 2004. You have to do what you believe is right, and do what you can.”
I would have offered a different answer. I told Dr. Wexler after the event that I believed the Jewish vote was closer to 30%, but that so many Jewish republicans are scared to death to speak up. In college, I was terrified, and I was not the only one. Republican Jews are the new gays, slowly coming out of the closet.
Dr. Wexler made a valid point that Ronald Reagan had a higher total than that. I conceded that the first President Bush did not help himself with Secretary of State James Baker, and undoing the damage takes time. However, a 50/50 split among Jews would benefit all Jews because swing voters have more power than constituencies that vote as a bloc.
After the speech and the question and answer session, a friend was able to get me to a private after party where I got to meet Karl Rove. Very few people were allowed to this later event, so it gave Mr. Rove more time to interact with the people who were. He spoke to every single person, signed autographs, and took pictures.
When I took my picture with him, the flash did not work. Yet one of his security guards noticed this and told me to get back in line, and that he would make sure I had a good picture. When Mr. Rove saw me again, I told him, “I’m sorry, I am not trying to vote twice.” I have to confess that despite doing what seemed like several things at once between handshaking and talking to people, he remembered that my flash had not gone off. The guard did not tell him. He just remembered. The second picture came off without a hitch. He thanked me for being a blogger, and I gave him a present of a couple columns I wrote singing his praises. Yes, that was for my benefit as well.
Karl Rove was an influential figure in American politics during a very critical time in American history. His power and influence have been overstated by his enemies, and understated by Mr. Rove himself.
As important as his contribution to President Bush’s political career has been, I hope more people see the other tough job he has, that of a husband and father. He is a human being, and a nice guy at that. The handshake at the end between Dr. Wexler and Mr. Rove was sincere. Political opponents do not need to be enemies.
I admire them both. I also have to hide from both of them, since I can only donate so much. My political party or my alma mater?
I am not going near that one. I will hire a political consultant to help me spin my way out of that potential debacle if anybody asks. I do know the best in the business. He does not come cheap, but he does get the job done.
Be well Mr. Rove. It was a pleasure.