Karl Rove digs himself deeper: How former GOP savior became damaged goods

Defenders are suggesting he's the victim of a campaign to “get Rove,” but the GOP master only has himself to blame

Published May 19, 2014 4:23PM (EDT)

Karl Rove                   (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
Karl Rove (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

Karl Rove’s campaign to make himself the focus of the 2016 presidential race continued over the weekend, with remarkable interviews by the worshipful Hugh Hewitt and some unlikely skeptics at Fox. So far the debate has mostly been about whether his insistence that Hillary Clinton has been hobbled by “a traumatic brain injury” will help or hurt her in a likely 2016 presidential run. But the more interesting question is whether it helps or hurts Rove.

On the surface, it may seem surprising that Rove got such pushback from his colleagues at Fox News Sunday. But in fact, his critics were the network’s squishes, Juan Williams, nominal Democrat Kirsten Powers and the guy with a last name that connotes journalistic integrity and who periodically shows some, Chris Wallace. And their questions give Roger Ailes’ network some plausible deniability if Rove’s gambit backfires.

Powers acted shocked when Rove repeated his claim about Clinton’s "traumatic brain injury," exclaiming, “Karl! Come on!” Wallace mocked him for couching his allegation as human-to-human empathy. "My point is this, she's a human being. You would not be human, and not have a serious brain injury -- like this was -- and take it into consideration if you're thinking about going and doing what she might do."

"This was concern for her?" Wallace asked.

"Yeah," Rove replied. "Concern as one human being to another, but I'm more concerned about people who say, 'You know, she's in, this is a done deal.' I'm not so certain. My brain says she's running, my gut says this is going to be far more serious."

Juan Williams was toughest on Rove, comparing his Clinton-bashing to his Swift-boating of Vietnam War hero John Kerry, which Rove shot back was “entirely legitimate.” Williams’ main concern seemed to be that the attacks on Clinton would backfire. “You’re an effective political operator, but you may be helping Hillary Clinton!” he said.

Score one for Rove there. Williams has his facts a little backward: While everyone remembers the Bush team’s Swift-boating of Kerry as scurrilous (especially on behalf of a guy who disappeared during his Texas Air National Guard stint), it must also be remembered that the attacks worked. The lesson partisans took away from Rove’s maneuver was not to avoid loathsome below-the-belt attacks, but once attacked, to fire back immediately and in kind. The Clintons, well-versed in below-the-belt attacks, responded the right way, mocking “Dr. Rove” and noting his long career of lying.

But it was the gentle hand-holding of Rove fanboy Hugh Hewitt that actually gave us the best insight into Rove’s thinking about his Clinton attack – he thinks it worked, and he knows he’s been singed by the blowback. Hewitt opened his questions by noting he’s worried about Rove.

“I think this was an attempt by the left, and I actually got into this with Dylan Byers about this on air, to take you a little bit off the board and to immunize Hillary from questions about her age and her health,” the conservative radio host told Rove. “Did either effort succeed?” Here’s how Rove answered:

No. Look, here’s the deal. And to me, I thought their best line was their first line. “Tell Dr. Rove she’s 100%.”  But everything after that has simply drawn more and more attention to it, and caused people to say well, what are they hiding? Now look, I don’t think they’re hiding anything.

Did you catch that? “I don’t think they’re hiding anything.” In fact, Rove’s first foray into Brainghazigate featured a long peroration on the dark mysteries of Clinton’s 2012 illness. “Thirty days in the hospital?” Rove said, according to the New York Post (and it was three days, not 30 days, but who’s counting?). “And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.”

But now his issue isn’t “what’s up with that,” Rove tells us, but simple curiosity about what a fellow suffering human being will do in the aftermath of “a serious brain injury,” in case you missed that part. About the “serious brain injury.”

Then Hewitt returns to his deepest concern: whether the Democratic backlash against his Hillary attacks has damaged the man once called “Bush’s brain.” He asks angrily: “Are they trying to get Rove off of the television? Is there a campaign to get Rove?”

Rove said no, but took the chance to hit back at White House press secretary Jay Carney, who mocked him for challenging Fox calling the state of Ohio, and the election, for President Obama, as an example of someone whose own “cognitive capabilities” ought to be questioned. Not surprisingly, Rove defended himself: “We ought to define, if we’re calling it, we ought to be willing to defend it and explain it to the American people.” He then described Fox’s humiliating on-air fact-checking of its own election call as “45 minutes of really good television.”

That’s right: The cringe-making episode in which Fox’s Megyn Kelly was forced to leave Rove’s side and travel to the network’s data-crunching boiler room and ask trained professionals why they were disagreeing with a partisan hack; the episode that served as an object lesson in the dangers of epistemic closure, also known as what happens when living in an echo chamber makes you literally dumber – that was “45 minutes of really good television.”

Now, that’s Rove’s spin – even he isn’t addled enough to think it was good television. But he is addled enough to think it’s good spin. He has presided over a party that’s shed all of its own policy ideas and is dependent on an increasingly extremist and racially narrow base. He knows the GOP has no logical route back to the White House except to hobble its ablest Democratic rivals. So this is a sacrificial mission by Rove; he’ll try to take down Clinton, even if he goes down with her.

There’s one final note to savor in the Hewitt interview, and that’s the way it showcases a persistent GOP impulse to blame Democrats for troubles of the party’s own making. In 2012, the problem wasn’t the party’s backward stance on contraception and its coverage under Obamacare; the problem was Democrats who made it an issue!  The problem wasn’t Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” it was Democrats attacking him for doing it. Likewise, the problem isn’t Rove making a loony and scurrilous attack on Hillary Clinton; the problem is Democrats fighting back, and doing it well. Those awful Democrats: They're trying to "get Rove"!

Whatever. I don’t see how it works. Rove is essentially admitting that he’s raising the issue to give an example of the rough treatment Clinton will endure as a candidate – and also to help make sure that such rough treatment will discourage her from running. But if this is Rove’s worst, Clinton has to be feeling better about a presidential run, not worse.

By Joan Walsh