Kos vs. Rove: Who won the Newsweek primary?

Reluctantly, I'd have to call it for Rove.

By Joan Walsh

Published November 19, 2007 6:31AM (EST)

Newsweek's two new political columnists have officially debuted, and I read Karl Rove and Markos Moulitsas's pieces side by side, trying to figure out who won.

It wasn't entirely a fair fight. Karl Rove worked for Richard Nixon organizing college students 35 years ago, and later managed to get a recovering-alcoholic, AWOL-for-a-year, failed rich-kid "oil man" elected Texas governor twice, then president twice (although his candidate did lose the popular vote first time out.) The amazing Kos started the dominant progressive blog Daily Kos and is a godfather of the so-called netroots, but he has mostly supported worthy but unsuccessful national candidates (like Rove he has yet to choose a favorite in the 2008 election). The experience gap shows in this first round, which I have to give to Rove. But Kos is a fighter, and he can learn from an early defeat.

Rove's debut column explains how to beat Hillary Clinton. He opens with a supposedly telling anecdote, about how he inherited her West Wing office, and gave speeches joking about how he appreciated inheriting its "full-length vanity mirror," because it helped him work on his "rumpled appearance." But instead of enjoying that legendary Turdblossom wit, Clinton supposedly bristled and told him she didn't put the mirror in the office. Can you believe that the just-elected female senator from New York was bothered by the implication she'd installed a "full-length vanity mirror" in her West Wing office? What a bitch!

In fact that's exactly the conclusion Rove drew. He even quotes the now-infamous John McCain supporter who asked "How do we beat the bitch?" last week, except he cleans it up for Newsweek, using the 1984 Barbara Bushism for Geraldine Ferraro, "rhymes with rich" (Lord help us, 24 years later; how long are we going to have to deal with these people?) Rove frames "how do we beat the 'rhymes with rich'" as the big question for the GOP in 2008. So let's keep score. In his first three and a half paragraphs writing for Newsweek, Karl Rove shows us that Hillary is a bitch, then informs us people are calling her a bitch, then instructs Republicans on how they can beat the bitch. That's good writing!

It's downhill from there, but as anyone who was taught the inverted pyramid method of story construction knows, that's OK, because very few people will still be reading after Rove's impressively bitchy windup. He goes on to say that a Republican candidate can win by being "authentic," unlike Clinton, who he says is faking her accent and laugh. There are a couple of interesting insights to be gleaned: Rove doesn't think traditional Republican issues like "crime and welfare" -- read: race -- will be "salient." And he pretends to believe Republicans should go after the votes of minorities. That's pretty funny; I guess he truly isn't working for a candidate yet.

Now let's look at Kos. In addition to his relative inexperience in successful political campaigns, Kos has several other disadvantages. Although Rudy Giuliani is leading in national GOP polls, Mitt Romney is ahead in the early primary and caucus states, so the Republicans don't have as clear a frontrunner as Clinton for Democrats to target. It's also possible he's just too classy to smear the putative frontrunner, Giuliani, the way Rove did Clinton. And admittedly, it's also hard to come up with anything that rhymes with "crony-promoting, bullying, megalomaniac serial adulterer." (You can't beat "rhymes with rich" for helping you slip a profane sexist slur into the pages of Newsweek in your first column.) So instead of targeting a candidate, Kos runs down the list of Bush disasters, from Iraq and Katrina through the mortgage crisis and SCHIP veto, to explain why a Democratic victory in 2008 is inevitable. But reading these two columns side by side, that suddenly doesn't ring true.

Which alarmed me. Rove is using the pages of Newsweek to call the leading Democrat a bitch. Moulitsas is taking the high road to explain how, looking at the Bush record rationally, the Democrats simply can't lose. If this is a preview of the political season to come, Democrats are toast. With Rove calling Clinton a bitch, why couldn't Kos open with a tough-but-fair column on Giuliani ethics problems the mainstream media have been reluctant to put together, from Bernie Kerik to Alan Placa?

It may be that the right-wing strategy of working the ref, shrilly attacking Kos as beyond the political pale when Newsweek announced his new column, succeeded in toning down his rhetoric. Maybe he wrote the column before he knew he was sparring directly with Boy Genius. Whatever, Kos has game, and he should bring it next time. I have faith that he will.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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