When I sit down someday to write my memoirs and try to characterize this era, I will note three salient political features. One, and obviously, the increasing wingnuttery of the Republican Party. Two, the ever-increasing ownership of our political system by the top 0.1 (or even .01) percent. And three, the continuing and mind-boggling overestimation of Karl Rove’s brilliance.
The first two things I get. They happen to be real and true. But Karl Rove I do not. I never have, really, not even in 2000. I mean, his candidate didn’t even really win. Then came 2004. OK, I’ll give him that one, but all he did then was (barely) reelect an incumbent. Just two incumbents going back to FDR lost their reelection bids while eight won them, so that’s a pretty low bar for genius.
Then came the truly dark period, the one that should have pulverized his reputation forever, when Rove told his president to go out and promote Social Security privatization, which sank like a stone. This while Rove was talking up a “permanent conservative majority” and world-historic realignment, even though all he and his president’s failures managed to do was turn the Senate and the House Democratic in 2006 and then pave the way for the country’s rejection of John McCain and embrace of Barack Obama. Rove is a so-so political strategist, a corrupt trickster going back to college, and a venal and wholly unprincipled man who once orchestrated a whisper campaign that an Alabama judge who did admirable work with youngsters was a pedophile. And on top of all that, he’s just not that smart, as proved on Election Night 2012, when he made a world-class asshole out of himself over Ohio.
This week, everybody is going around saying, “Oh, this Hillary thing; typical unprincipled Rove, but you’ve got to give the devil his due. It works. The evil genius is at it again.” Let’s hold on to our hats here. What’s the proof that him suggesting that Hillary Clinton has brain damage is “working”? Because the media are talking about it, because people like me are writing about it, because it’s been Topic A on cable? Please. Since when are those indicators of anything? If cable-news controversies dictated politics and life, Obama never would have survived about a dozen little cable scandals in 2008, and Solange Knowles would be the world’s most important human being.
This is just the media thinking that because they’re chattering about something, all of America is. But there is certainly no evidence that regular Americans heard what Rove said and are drawing precisely the conclusions he wants them to draw. We won’t know for a long time whether Rove’s gambit about Clinton’s age and health worked. But I confidently place my dime on the square that says it won’t. Here’s why.
If you look back over his track record a little more closely, you see that Rove’s type of deceitful treachery has worked best in Republican contexts, or at least in conservative ones. The Rovian whisper campaigns—about that poor judge’s devotion to children, or John McCain’s love child, or Ann Richards’s sexuality—are all about sex, and they tend to take root in Christianist citadels (Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas, respectively) where the populace is awfully fire-and-brimstone-ish about such matters. So Rove—I will give him this much—knows the workings of the fearful, reactionary mind.
But the minds of the rest of us, not so much. Let’s hypothetically transfer the above three whisper campaigns to New York. The New York response to the defamed judge would have been: Get that obvious smear job outta our faces. To McCain’s love child it would have been: So what? And to suggestions of a candidate’s lesbianism: I had a feeling she was more interesting than she seemed.
I’m exaggerating for effect, but I’m making a serious point. Rove does not know how non-conservatives think about these things. Non-conservatives don’t hate Hillary Clinton. In fact, they rather like her, dare I say it about five, six, or seven times more than they like George W. Bush. And while non-conservatives do have fair and reasonable concerns about her health and age, they will parse them fairly and reasonably, and they’ll make fair and reasonable judgments.
Ultimately, Rove won’t have a thing to do with how voters assess Clinton on these fronts. She will, based on how she comports herself. And so far I see scant evidence that anything changed after she suffered a blood clot in December 2012. I’ve seen her speak since then. She’s the same speaker she always was. We all saw her on TV answering those questions at that Senate Benghazi hearing. She was plenty sharp that day. And that was three weeks after she got out of the hospital, and while wearing her eyeglasses with the supposed secret powers!
A campaign is, as we know, unbelievably hard. Either she’ll hold up to it or she won’t. People will be able to tell. My guess is she will. And voters outside the Rovian circle will have long since concluded that the brain damage gambit was just one more act of dishonesty and desperation by a man who has been, really, a loser for several years now, ever since the elections of 2006. Over the top? I ask you to recall his 2012, when his American Crossroads spent $103 million and didn’t win one single race, and was judged the worst—not one of the worst; the worst—return on investment in electoral politics.
I look forward to Election Night 2016, and the moment when Clinton tops 270 electoral votes—which may well come early in the evening—and a stumbling, bumbling Rove tries to offer up some explanation for it all, making excuses for the third presidential election in a row. Maybe by then the world will agree with me, that when they say “evil genius,” they’ll know they’re only half right and auto-correct.