The Continuing Power of Karl Rove
Photo Credit: Matthew Bradley via Flickr
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BILL MOYERS: If you want to see the personification of how the Citizens United decision is playing out in this campaign, look no further than Karl Rove. Yes, that Karl Rove, the political strategist once known as Bush’s Brain. Rove was a big winner in 2000, when the court’s conservative majority gave the presidency to his client, George W. Bush. Rove went with Bush to the White House as his political czar, but left seven years later as damaged goods. He was enmeshed in the president’s failures and in scandals of his own, including millions of missing emails, congressional hearings, and a near indictment over leaks that outed covert CIA agent Valerie Plame and exposed her to danger.
But then the five conservatives on the Supreme Court – three of whom had been appointed by Rove’s two Bush patrons, Bush the First and Bush the Second – came down with the Citizens United decision, giving Karl Rove a second lease on life as a bagman – the biggest in town.
You could see him at the Republican National Convention, backslapping and glad-handing plutocrats and politicos. He told a private breakfast meeting during the convention that the super PAC he helped create, American Crossroads, plans to spend $200 million dollars on the presidential race and another $100 million dollars on this year’s Senate and House campaigns.
Then there’s his affiliated nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, that’s a 501(c)4 where all donations are anonymous, perfectly cozy and covert. Just a few days ago, Crossroads GPS bought $2.6 million worth of TV ads in Nevada, Ohio and Virginia, three states where Republicans hope to grab Senate seats, and bring them that much closer to the permanent GOP majority of Karl Rove’s dreams.
Bush's Brain has become Boss Rove, virtuoso of what BusinessWeek calls “partisan money management,” the undisputed maestro of the politics of plutocracy.
How does he do it? Investigative journalist Craig Unger has been on the case for years. The author of two books on the Bush dynasty, he’s now written this account of an astonishing comeback, "BOSS ROVE: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power."
Craig, welcome to the show.
CRAIG UNGER: Thanks for having me, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: You've taken on Karl Rove in this latest book. What prompted that?
CRAIG UNGER: It was really, once the Citizens United came down, I saw him go into action. And I could see what was happening was not being followed by the mainstream press. And I thought, "Here is going to be one of the great untold stories of the 2012 election." And we saw it start to play out in 2010. And the Republicans won, I believe, with 63 seats in that. It was a tremendous victory for them.
And this was at a time when Rove was supposedly out of it. And there he was behind the scenes with these super PACs, with American Crossroads. And I could see that he was preparing himself for 2012. And not just 2012, but beyond. That he was something other than people had thought he was. Most people thought he was a creature of the Bush family. And I think he's a force that’s more powerful than that.
BILL MOYERS: I actually mapped the connections where you place Rove. From the Republicans in Congress to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is the largest business lobby in America. To multibillionaires like the Koch Brothers, to the Tea Party, to the Christian Right, Ralph Reed. To Grover Norquist. To the National Rifle Association. To Rupert Murdoch, the Wall Street Journal. Fox News, to the super PACs, by which he directs multimillions of dollars. How does he hold it all together? What's his secret?
CRAIG UNGER: Well, a lot of it, you know, I go back to the early days in the '80s, when he was really sort of a nobody. And the Texan Republican party was not powerful then. The big business people in Texas said, "Well, why should we give to the Republicans. The Democrats are doing everything we need." And Rove made his entree there through the issue of tort reform.
BILL MOYERS: He was actually working for Phillip Morris back in nineteen, the late '70s, early '80s. And you say in here and outline how he, in effect, transformed the Texas State Supreme Court into a pro-corporate, anti-tort court. And that became, as you say, a cash cow. How did he turn this tort campaign into a cash cow?
CRAIG UNGER: He went to big companies and said, "Look, you risk billions and billions of dollars in product liability lawsuits. Let me help you out. All you have to do is contribute a few million dollars to political action committees for my candidates."
And he managed to get a lot of people elected to the Texas State Legislature. He managed to get George W. Bush elected governor. And in doing that, he managed to turn the Texas Supreme Court, which had been almost entirely Democratic, and flip it so it was entirely Republican.
He was getting millions of dollars in donations from these huge corporations who were benefiting from tort reform bills that were passing the Texas legislature. I mean, there were an enormous number, over 40 bills passed to Texas legislature that hindered, that were along his lines. And tort reform—
BILL MOYERS: Made it harder for average Joes to sue corporations, right?
CRAIG UNGER: Exactly. And through this, he was able to cultivate, his first donors were people like Bob Perry, who is no relation to Rick Perry, but was a billionaire Texas builder. And Harold Simmons, another Texas billionaire. And they’ve stuck with him. And if you look at the political action committees today, and who the big donors are, a lot of the people were with Rove back in the '80s.
BILL MOYERS As you say, the health care industry, the petrol chemical and energy industry, land developers, corporate lawyers, tobacco companies, they’re the ones who supported him then and they’re doing it now, right?
CRAIG UNGER: Absolutely. He's building institutions that have enduring power and can have real consequence for the future. I think if you look at some of his campaigns, like voter suppression, there are movements in dozens of states to require voters to have IDs and so forth that will suppress the vote among pop, among groups that are largely Democratic. That can have an effect for many elections to come.
BILL MOYERS: Do you find any of Rove's fingerprints on those voter ID campaigns?
CRAIG UNGER: Absolutely. You go back to 2004, and he talked about it publicly on Fox News. In a state like Ohio, there's a tactic called caging. And what the Republicans did in Ohio is they would send out hundreds of thousands of letters, and they might focus these especially in minority neighborhoods and so forth. These were letters requiring or asking for a response. And if they didn't get a response, the voters could be challenged at the polls as not having that residency. Once your voter registration's challenged, you're given a provisional ballot, which is not always counted in the case of Ohio.
But he also had deputies who were going around the country filing suits in various states, introducing bills in state legislature.
BILL MOYERS It's clear from reading this that Karl Rove could not be doing what he's doing without Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Is that right?
CRAIG UNGER: It is enormously helpful for a number of reasons. One, simply is, it provides him with an economic base, and a powerful platform. But Fox News is something special in American journalism, if that's the right place to put it. And I went back to the Nixon administration, and Roger Ailes was in the, who's the chairman of Fox News, was in the Nixon administration.
BILL MOYERS: He was Nixon's television advisor.
CRAIG UNGER: Absolutely. And he had a proposal back then that he called GOP TV. And today, he has it effectively. This is the Republican TV network. And at one time during this campaign there were five potential presidential candidates in the Republican party, that is, if you include people like Sarah Palin who was potentially a candidate, but never declared.
Who were on Fox News payroll. So, when you see them on TV, these are not mere commentators. These are actors in the Republican party. And Rove is being the party boss. And when he and Sarah Palin have a tiff—
KARL ROVE: She is all upset about this, saying I’m somehow trying to sabotage her, sabotage her in some way—
CRAIG UNGER: That is Karl Rove, the party boss, shutting down Sarah Palin.
BILL MOYERS: Well, let me walk you through this, because it's a fascinating part of your book. You've indicated that during the Republican primaries this spring, he'd be on TV picking off one Republican candidate after another. Palin, Cain, Bachmann, Gingrich. Rick Perry, Trump—
KARL ROVE: You know, now a, you know, a joke candidate, let him go ahead and announce for election on the apprentice. The American people aren’t going to be hiring him and certainly the Republicans are not going to be hiring him in the Republican primary.
BILL MOYERS: Then he would write a column about it in the Wall Street Journal, actually fulfilling the strategy he had spelled out.
CRAIG UNGER: One by one, another Republican candidate would surge ahead of Romney. There was Rick Perry, there was Santorum and so forth. And just as they surged, Rove would strike out at them, and sometimes it was very discretely, and it would be through putting millions and millions of dollars into an anti-Santorum campaign.
BILL MOYERS: Most people have probably forgotten that the press ran with the story that Romney won the Iowa caucus, when a few days later Santorum turned out to be the real winner.
CHRIS WALLACE: Karl, you've just gotten some word from a source in the Republican National Committee. Tell us what it is.
BILL MOYERS: He was on Fox News with Chris Wallace. And he says, in fact, "Romney's going to come out the champion here," when in fact, Santorum was winning.
KARL ROVE: And that it will show an 18 vote victory in that precinct for Mitt Romney, which will give him a statewide victory of 14 votes over Rick Santorum. […]
CHRIS WALLACE: Now, I, you know, this is obviously pretty big thing. That Romney is going to win the Iowa Caucuses by 14 votes.
KARL ROVE: By 14 votes.
CHRIS WALLACE: How solid is your evidence for your...
KARL ROVE: From a pretty good, reliable source.
CRAIG UNGER: So, he is able to almost literally count the votes, even though he's not counting correctly.
BILL MOYERS: And he then writes a column to the effect in the Wall Street Journal that Romney won, even though the votes are still not all counted. And then, he directs his super PACs to go after that candidate, after Santorum. So, in effect, he's naming the winner before the votes are counted, and then carrying his story out into the public.
CRAIG UNGER: Right. He does two things. He directs the funding, but he's also creating a narrative, and he's brilliant at crafting a narrative, and having not just Fox News, but large portions of the press run with it as well.
BILL MOYERS: Rove once personified the Republican establishment that the Tea Party detested. Now you say he's coopted them, defanged their uncontrollable elements, marginalized their leaders, and seized their resources. How did he do that?
CRAIG UNGER: Well, he did it partly because he got the candidate and they had nowhere else to turn. He also, you see it playing out in a very interesting way now with the Todd Akin case, the fiasco, really, in Missouri that's going on now. Because here you have a real Tea Party candidate and Rove was pouring money in. If you looked at the Akin campaign, and he was leading Claire McCaskill by about five points.
BILL MOYERS: Rove was pouring money behind Akin?
CAMPAIGN ADS: Here’s Claire McCaskill, using special interest cash to hide the fact she’s voted against what’s best for Missouri. […] Obamacare? More like Obama Claire. […] Sorry Senator McCaskill. No more reckless spending . No new taxes. And no more blank checks.
CRAIG UNGER: Akin's campaign had about $2.2 million if I'm not mistaken. Rove's super PACs had put in more than $5 million in the campaign. So, they were crucial to its success. And now, what happened immediately after the episode came to light, Rove acted swiftly and brutally. And he said, “Akin’s got a lot of explaining to do.” He immediately pulled the plug on all funding. And again, this is the party boss announcing on national TV, "You are finished, we're not giving you another dime."
BILL MOYERS: And he has no public office of, for himself. He's not elected to any office.
CRAIG UNGER: He's not elected to any office even within the Republican party. He—
BILL MOYERS: Yet, he's the boss as you said.
CRAIG UNGER: He is. Absolutely.
He's brutal, he's ruthless, he, it's a scorched earth kind of partisanship. If you're not on his side 100 percent, he will destroy you. There are Republican, other strategists who were with him 95 percent and they found their careers destroyed. And he will go after you. And he, but he's managed to retain the loyalty of these multibillionaires for decades.
BILL MOYERS: What does it mean, Craig, that a man like Karl Rove can keep secret the sources of huge sums of money coming into his control?
CRAIG UNGER: I think if there's no transparency, then there's no accountability. And here you have billionaires, really, who are funding a political party, a political candidate, and they want certain favors in return. And I think Rove is playing a very, very long game. And he's sort of in a win-win position. That is, Romney is a deeply flawed candidate.
The Republicans are probably at a disadvantage and may well not win. If Rove pulls it out of the fire, Rove, he'll be declared a genius. And if Romney loses, Rove can blame it on the undisciplined behavior of Tea Party candidates like Akin. He can blame it on their extremism. And come back in 2016 with none other than Jeb Bush.
BILL MOYERS: The book is, Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power. Craig Unger, thanks for being with me.
CRAIG UNGER: Thanks for having me, Bill.