Is Karl Rove haunted or hollow?

mt1113516596For some perverse reason, I think the following information from Google News is rather interesting:

Your search -- "Karl Rove," Episcopalian -- did not match any documents.

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You did hear that Karl Rove left the White House?

Yes, the great white whale that Netroots Democrats have loved to hate is headed back to Texas, where he will surely pull strings to do more damage to the hopes and dreams of liberals everywhere. This has been the hot topic here in Beltway land and, as you would imagine, it has caused a headline or two.

Now when you think of President George W. Bush and his two narrow White House wins, the first thing that leaps to mind is the whole values-voters and "pew gap" thing. The assumption is that, without the evangelical vote, the man is toast. The other assumption is that, without Rove, the man is toast.

So I have found it interesting that there has been almost nothing in the mainstream coverage this week about Rove and the strings he used to control -- we must assume -- conservative Christian voters. How did the maestro connect with them? Or did he, as many quiet religious critics say in private, merely peel off religious voters in order to build support for country-club Republican economic policies?

Well, The Atlantic has a way-amazingly well-timed cover story out right now by Joshua Green titled "Lessons of a Failed Presidency: Why Karl Rove Couldn't Deliver." I found two passages in this piece really interesting. Let's start with the train coming off the rails post-2004:

But within a year the administration was crumbling. Social Security had gone nowhere. Hurricane Katrina, the worsening war in Iraq, and the disastrous nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court shattered the illusion of stern competence that had helped reelect Bush. What surprised everybody was how suddenly it happened; for a while, many devotees of the Cult of Rove seemed not to accept that it had. As recently as last fall, serious journalists were churning out soaring encomiums to Rove and his methods with titles like One Party Country and The Way to Win. In retrospect, everyone should have been focusing less on how those methods were used to win elections and more on why they couldn’t deliver once the elections were over.

Now, the Miers case is interesting because the White House thought all evangelicals would rally to her cause, backing her vague, quiet, strange sort of born-again credentials. But they didn't, at least not in waves. Truth is, Rove's great disasters rarely had much to do with religion, unless one thinks that Rove and Cheney really are into all that Left Behind mischief in the Middle East.

So what was this Episcopalian named Karl Rove up to? Where is the religion hook in this story?

... Rove's idea was to use the levers of government to create an effect that ordinarily occurs only in the most tumultuous periods in American history. He believed he could force a realignment himself through a series of far-reaching policies. Rove's plan had five major components: establish education standards, pass a "faith-based initiative" directing government funds to religious organizations, partially privatize Social Security, offer private health-savings accounts as an alternative to Medicare, and reform immigration laws to appeal to the growing Hispanic population. Each of these, if enacted, would weaken the Democratic Party by drawing some of its core supporters into the Republican column.

Now study that agenda carefully. It's clear that the whole faith-based thing was all but DOA, and many have said it was a symbolic flop that never was taken seriously. So what is left? If you read the rest of the Green piece, you'll find that there is next to nothing in it about religion.

Now read the New York Times piece on Rove's departure -- here it is. See much faith in there?

Now read the Washington Post piece on the same day -- here it is. Find much Godtalk in there? Was Rove a really faith-based kind of guy?

Now, finally, read the Los Angeles Times piece on Rove's exit -- here it is. This one does include one ambitious attempt to turn Rove's tactics into a system and that leads into Culture Wars territory.

This is a bit long, but it's essential. Let me toss a question or two into this.

Rove's system had three major components. Using powerful computer systems, modern marketing tools, micro-targeting of supporters and sophisticated get-out-the-vote techniques, he revolutionized the nuts and bolts of campaigning. Republican strategists ... that would be a lasting piece of Rove's legacy.

His methods enabled GOP operatives to scour even the most heavily Democratic precincts for potential Republican votes, identifying individuals whose lifestyle habits, consumer preferences and other characteristics made them potential supporters.

karl rove mugWell, what kind of "lifestyle habits" and "other characteristics" are we talking about? Does this have anything to do with his controversial attempt to obtain church mailing lists?

Another big part of Rovism was making sure federal officials throughout the government understood GOP election priorities and helped party candidates in every way possible, such as decisions on highway contracts and environmental policy. Other politicians, including Democrats, have used government policymaking to advance their political agendas, but Rove carried the effort to new heights.

Although this strategy may have boosted GOP support in battleground states, it also contributed to controversies that fueled Democratic congressional investigations. Rove has been subpoenaed to testify about what role he had, if any, in the firing of several U.S. attorneys.

Sounds like secular brass-knuckle stuff to me.

Finally, instead of trying to appeal to the independent middle of the electorate, Rove pushed such wedge issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and gun rights to maximize support from the GOP's conservative base. The same tactics were used to draw into the Republican fold single-issue voters who might otherwise have voted for Democrats or have stayed home.

Now this is where things get interesting. It's clear that Rove pushed moral issues.

But it's also clear that he did so only when he was pushing issues on which a clear majority of Americans were on his side -- other than the abortion issue, which, as always, stands alone. But there are millions of worship-service-attending Americans -- including Democrats -- who want to see strong legal restrictions on abortion. Once again, Rove had the numbers there on his side and he was trying to peel away conservative Democrats, African-Americans, Hispanics, daily Mass Catholics and others.

Rove did what was in his interest. What emerges in these stories is that his fatal mistakes had nothing to do with religious and moral agendas. His mistakes were linked to issues of competence, entitlement programs, cronyism, arrogance, etc. etc. And, of course, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq and Iraq.

So where is the essential religion-news hook for this story? How would you word it?

If you want to see some of the dots connected, in the most snarky manner possible, then you have to turn -- naturally -- to Salon, where Lou Dubose writes a piece that is almost exactly the opposite of the mainstream coverage. The question, of course, is whether this is an editorial judgment or a journalistic one. Who is closer to the real story of Rove?

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