Karl Rove’s Ashley Judd problem

The big loser of the 2012 campaign cycle is incapable of helping his party close the gender gap

Topics: Karl Rove, Sexism, Ashley Judd, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Christine O'Donnell, Caroline Kennedy,

Karl Rove’s Ashley Judd problem (Credit: AP/Tony Gutierrez/Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

When activist and actress Ashley Judd recently announced she was mulling a run for Senate against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Karl Rove revealed a strategy to undermine her. It would be one he’d used before with women candidates. “We’re making fun of her,” he explained.

Give him points for honesty. The key concept behind his super PAC’s first attack ad of the new election cycle was indeed to belittle the high-profile, politically active Judd. Rove and American Crossroads GPS dropped $10,000 to “stick a pin in her balloon,” going up with a satiric Judd for Senate campaign spot that portrays her as an airhead, a “leader who knows how to follow,” and dismisses her as a silly Hollywood liberal.

Far from a unique personal shot at Judd, the attack is part of a long pattern of Rove attacking women in troubling ways rhetorically distinct from his campaigns against male candidates.

One can say that he is an equal opportunity smear artist, but there is a context and a history to Rove’s anti-Judd salvo. He routinely resorts to anti-woman insults and insinuations that cut deeper than his usual attacks – characterizing women in politics as having stereotypically negative female traits (subject to hysteria, too emotional, weak and weepy, bleeding heart, flighty or frigid, and lesbian).

On mainstream women’s issues, in the last year alone Rove claimed that Democrats “worship at the altar of reproductive rights,” compared President Obama to a “third-world dictator” for requiring insurance companies to cover birth control, and sneered at the White House’s priority to ensure equal pay for equal work as evidence of “unapologetic liberalism.”

But to fully appreciate the war Rove and Crossroads GPS have waged on women candidates and leaders, consider the last election cycle.

One of his most infamous 30-second spots in 2012 featured an out-of-context snippet of a fired up Tammy Baldwin — the seven-term Wisconsin Congresswoman and Senate hopeful — declaring “You’re damn right” in an unidentified speech. As the Advocate newspaper aptly noted, this was a “none-too-subtle attempt to portray Baldwin as a stereotypical angry lesbian.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts faced Crossroads ads belittling her professional credentials – a tack Rove has not typically taken with male candidates — while ridiculing them to suggest she was out of touch. One of the ads that tied her to bank bailouts derisively called her “Professor Warren” and mocked what it called a “charm offensive” she supposedly mounted with banks (even though Wall Street actually bet its campaign money against her).

To Rove, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds a special place for demonization. In June of 2012, he called the first woman speaker of the House “the Mad Red Queen.” Following the Democratic National Convention, he trained his harshest fire not at any of the men but at Caroline Kennedy, deriding her speech invoking women’s rights as “gratuitous” and a violation of religious values.

Given that Hillary Clinton has been a longtime threat to the right, one would expect that she would be a special Rove target. But virtually his entire arsenal has consisted of sexist broadsides. He once called her simply “the woman.” And according to Washington Times reporter Bill Sammons’ 2006 book about the Bush administration, “Strategery,” Rove predicted Clinton’s “brittleness” would doom her presidential campaign. In a 2007 Newsweek column, he described Clinton as “hard” and “brittle,” judged her voice to be icy, and called her a phony “who calculates almost everything, including her accent and laugh.”

Rove’s salvos have not been limited to elected officials. When Sonia Sotomayor, a Princeton and Yale Law School graduate, was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2009, he told Charlie Rose, “I know lots of stupid people who went to Ivy League schools.”

Notably, his demeaning caricatures have not been limited to Democrats, either.

Of all the unelectable Tea Party Senate candidates in recent campaigns, most of them extremist men like Ken Buck and Richard Mourdock, Rove chose to pick a high-profile fight with just one: Christine O’Donnell, described by Rove as “nutty.” His tone was so angry and personal that Rush Limbaugh commented, “I’ve never heard Karl so animated against a Democrat as he was against … O’Donnell.”

Similarly, in the lead-up to the 2012 Republican primary, Rove remained silent about implausible male Republican candidates for president like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, instead singling out Sarah Palin for lacking the “gravitas” for high office. While that criticism was hardly unique, Rove went on television to lampoon her behavior in her television show (“Sarah Palin’s Alaska”). “Did you see that?” he asked, adopting a high-pitched accent to mimic Palin’s, “‘Holy crap! That fish hit my thigh! It hurts!’ How does that make us comfortable seeing her in the Oval office?” He then questioned whether Palin had thick enough skin for the rough and tumble of politics.

This pattern of attacks looks familiar to anyone who has followed Rove’s career over the years. Texas Gov. Ann Richards became the object of notorious tactics in 1994 as Rove cut his political teeth. Push polls in the governor’s race between Richards and George W. Bush asked whether people would be “more or less likely to vote for Governor Richards if [they] knew her staff is dominated by lesbians.” This gave Rove and his associates fodder to lambast Richards for appointing single women who were described as “avowed homosexual activists” to state jobs, and push the rumor that she was a lesbian herself.

So Rove’s attack on Ashley Judd is not the first time he has tried to beat down a woman in politics with well-worn sexist tropes. If Republicans want to close the 10-point gender gap they suffered last cycle, Karl Rove’s 2012 won-loss record isn’t the only factor that should give them pause.

David Brock's latest book is "The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy." He is also the author of "Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>