The Architect Speaks
After maintaining a relentless optimism in the face of ominous polls, Karl Rove tells TIME why Republicans wound up taking a bath on Election Night.
BY MIKE ALLEN/WASHINGTON
At the White House senior staff meeting in the Roosevelt Room at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten thanked Karl Rove for his hard work in the elections, and the group around the big table burst into spontaneous applause. It was a much-needed moment of cheer for Rove, the President's chief strategist, after Republicans lost the House and were headed toward the same fate in the Senate in midterm congressional elections that turned into a blue rip tide of voter ire.
"The profile of corruption in the exit polls was bigger than I'd expected," Rove tells TIME. "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."
Exit polls showed heavy discontent with the course of the war, and Bush announced the departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the next day. But Rove took comfort in results of the Connecticut Senate race between the anti-war Democratic nominee, Ned Lamont, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who ran as an independent after losing the Democratic primary over his support for the war. "Iraq mattered," Rove says. "But it was more frustration than it was an explicit call for withdrawal. If this was a get-out-now call for withdrawal, then Lamont would not have been beaten by Lieberman. Iraq does play a role, but not the critical, central role."
And he does not believe his data let him down. "My job is not to be a prognosticator," he said. "My job is not to go out there and wring my hands and say, 'We're going to lose.' I'm looking at the data and seeing if I can figure out, Where can we be? I told the President, 'I don't know where this is going to end up. But I see our way clear to Republican control.' "
Rove, who is Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Adviser to the President, had long been warning in speeches that Democrats suffered defeat in 1994 after ossified thinking and an entitlement mentality took over the party: "What I was trying to say was: What happened to them could happen to us," he told TIME.
White House Counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush is "deeply appreciative for the time and effort put in by Karl, and for all the political team's effort." Bartlett pointed to the President's statement at his day-after news conference that as the head of the Republican Party, he shares a large part of the responsibility. "He's not the one that's going to sit there and point fingers at others," Bartlett said.
Despite this week's repudiation of the GOP, Rove said he believes the party can still achieve a long-term majority. "I see this as much more of a transient, passing thing," he said. "The Republican Party remains at its core a small-government, low-tax, limit-spending, traditional-values, strong-defense party. I see the power of the ideas, even in a tough year." He added that he has "fundamental confidence in the power of the underlying agenda of this President," and cited fighting the war on terror, entitlement reform, energy, tax cuts, immigration reform, No Child Left Behind reauthorization, democracy agenda in the Middle East, reducing trade barriers, spending restraint and legal reform.
Rove is famous for his political statistics, and his team has come up with an array of figures to contend that the Republicans' loss of 29 seats in the House and six in the Senate is not so out of whack with the historic norms. In all sixth year midterms, the President's party has lost an average of 29 House seats and 3 Senate seats, according to these figures. In all sixth-year midterms since World War II, the loss was an average of 31 House and 6 Senate seats. And in all wartime midterms since 1860, the average loss was 32 House and 5 Senate seat.
The Republican get-out-the-vote program Rove helped invent precluded even deeper losses, he says. "People were talking 35, 40 or more and it didn't happen," he said. "There were a number of elections which were supposed to be close and ended up not being close."
The Republican National Committee has been pointing out that a small shift in votes would have made a big difference. 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. In addition, the party has calculated that the winner received 51 percent or less in 35 contests, and that 23 races were decided by two percentage points or fewer, 18 races were decided by fewer than 5,000 votes, 15 races were decided by fewer than 4,000 votes, 10 races were decided by fewer than 3,000 votes, eight were decided by fewer than 2,000 votes and five races were decided by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Rove is an enthusiastic historian, but even he has trouble coming up with a parallel for this wild week. "We may look back and see this as a unique expression," he said. Republicans can only hope.