Herman Cain has seen the enemy, and it is Karl Rove.
In a Monday appearance on Fox and Friends, the GOP superstrategist turned talking head ticked through Cain’s campaign stumbles—in excruciating detail and with a mini-whiteboard, no less—on the way to voicing his concern that the candidate isn’t quite “up to the task” of running the country.
The Herminator promptly fired back that Rove seeks to “damage” him so his own pet candidate can “rise to the top.” Charged Cain, “I believe he wants Romney to get it.”
Rove has denied he has a dog in the fight, insisting he merely wants “the strongest nominee to emerge from the process.” But whether or not Rove is privately rooting for Mitt, Cain seems to have taken the pundit’s criticisms way too personally. As the 2012 cycle rolls along, Rove hasn’t taken shots just at Cain. He has, at one time or another, mowed down half the GOP presidential field. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump—all have felt the sting of Rove’s sharp tongue, some more than others.
Never a big Perry pal, Rove has declared the Texas governor’s position on Social Security “toxic,” his attack on Fed chairman Ben Bernanke “not presidential,” and his flirtation with birthers a surefire way to sink his candidacy.
Rove slapped Bachmann for claiming that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. (“There’s simply no evidence that’s true and she was rightly blasted from every quarter for saying it,” he wrote in his Sept. 22 Wall Street Journal column.) More broadly, he has suggested that the congresswoman lacks the experience to occupy the Oval Office.
Wind back the clock to this time last year, and Rove was publicly mocking Palin’s reality show and musing about whether she lacked the “gravitas” to be POTUS. This summer he wound up in a semi-public tiff with the former Alaska governor that led him to declare her too thin-skinned for the White House.
As for this past spring’s Trump boomlet, Rove dismissed the real-estate mogul altogether as “a joke candidate.”
Rove has repeatedly observed that he is now a paid political analyst, not a party cheerleader—a role he certainly looks to be relishing—though he declined to comment for this article.
“There’s a freedom in that. It’s liberating,” observes former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, who acknowledges that his own comments about fellow Republicans tend to be “more varnished.”
Not that Rove isn’t still deeply enmeshed in promoting the team: he is an enthusiastic Obama basher, and his American Crossroads super-PAC has raked in millions in the service of electing Republican candidates.
But focusing on the big picture seems to have freed Rove to be brutally upfront about any candidate he sees as endangering the cause.
“It’s Rove unleashed,” declares GOP strategist and fellow Bushie Mark McKinnon. “He’s not on anyone’s payroll anymore, so he’s free to roam and bark whenever he wants at whomever he wants.”
That bark is typically aimed at what Rove has referred to as the party’s “nutty fringe.” Indeed, “nutty” is a go-to word for him. He’s used it in discussing Trump, Perry’s birther pals, and, going back to last year’s midterms, the Delaware Senate candidacy of Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell. When O’Donnell upset the more moderate Mike Castle in the primary, Rove groused that, in nominating an unimpressive candidate prone to saying “nutty things,” Republicans had lost their shot at reclaiming the Senate.
Ironically, the guy who once calculated that the key to George W. Bush’s electoral victory lay in firing up the conservative base now frets that the base is so far out there that it risks tanking the GOP’s general-election prospects. “You don’t want these candidates moving so right in the Republican primary that it becomes impossible for them to win the general election,” he told Fox News viewers in August, in a warning widely assumed to be aimed at Perry.
Even the left-leaning Media Matters has praised Rove as a “voice of reason”—albeit grudgingly. “The rest of the right-wing media is so certifiably insane that Karl, by standing in the same spot he has always been in, now looks like the moderate and thoughtful one,” says Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow with the group.
And as the presumed Machiavelli behind Bush’s political success, Rove tends to carry more weight than your average talking head. “I don’t think anyone has the experience Karl does at the highest levels,” says Gillespie.
Of course, having a high-profile player slamming elements of the base can cause friction within the family. Rove’s vote of no confidence in O’Donnell outraged conservative pundits such as Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and fellow Fox contributor Palin. So fierce was the backlash that Rove eventually backed down—a rare concession for the cocky guru.
In the end, however, he had the last laugh. O’Donnell turned out to be a disaster, and Rove wound up looking like the shrewd, if irritating, voice of reason. “That dynamic and history help him now among core conservatives,” says a top Republican strategist. “They’re like, ‘Well, I may not like hearing what he has to say, but he may have a point.’”
If anything, Rove seems all the more eager to stir the pot as the 2012 race heats up and the stakes rise. One by one, he has poked and prodded the conservative darlings—even Palin, whom other Fox fellows had publicly admitted they were loath to criticize because she was technically a colleague.
“It’s his job,” says Gillespie. “And Karl is someone who takes his job seriously.”
This should make Cain feel at least a little better: he’s far from the first to get smacked around, and he’s unlikely to be the last.