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.

Suggestions: Make sure all words are spelled correctly. Try different keywords. Try more general keywords. Try fewer keywords. Try Google Blog Search.

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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chip

    Dubose wrote

    A nominal Christian and Episcopalian, Rove had little regard for the evangelical extremists who have become essential to the success of the modern Republican Party, even cracking the occasional joke about his own lack of faith.

    I have certainly seen enough quotes, including from this interview of Christopher Hitchens, which makes me think this is more than just an editorial judgment.

    Has anyone in the Bush administration confided in you about being an atheist?
    Well, I don’t talk that much to them—maybe people think I do. I know something which is known to few but is not a secret. Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, “I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.”

    If Karl Rove really does answer this kind of question the way Hitchens claims, then it would seems that the journalists writing the Rove departure story are not asking him about his personal faith. Which is fine with me, but surprising because the media does seem to love pointing out supposed hypocrisy.

    To me, the religion hook regarding Rove is to ask how a candidate, like Bush, squares his faith with employing a strategist who uses such unethical campaign tactics.

  • Stephen A.

    Liberal commentator Bill Moyers spat out a hateful, warped screed somehow managing to call Rove a lying master manipulator of the Reigious Right AND an agnostic, to boot (proof of that is lacking, of course.) Does that count as “God Talk” these days from the Religious Left?

    Link: HERE

  • tmatt

    WOW. People really seem to be engaging with the content of the coverage, don’t you think?

    Come on folks, read the MSM stories.

  • MattK

    I think the more interesting google is the “Rove not a believer” google. He isn’t a Christian, probably not even a theist.

  • DougD

    Tmatt begs the question on this issue. His unstated assumption it that one must be religious to manipulate voters who derive their morals from religion. Brush-up on the eons old false logic “begging the question.” Check out what Wikipedia has to say about it.

  • Francis

    # MattK says:
    August 18, 2007, at 2:21 am

    (Rove)isn’t a Christian, probably not even a theist.

    I think what he means is “He isn’t a theist, perhaps not even a Christian.”

    Every person baptized with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is a Christian. The subset of Christians who accept the assertion that a creator God exists are Deists. Those Christians who go further and assert that this God is revealed in words in books and speech are Theists. Among the Theists are Catholics and Protestants. “Catholics” includes Roman, Orthodox, Anglican and Coptic Christians. A minority of the world’s Theists are Protestants. Within that Protestant minority are Evangelicals. One element of Evangelicalism is American fundamentalism, theologically on its fringe.

    With remarkable hubris, many fundamentalists avoid the label “fundamentalist” and shelter behind the term “Christian.” They are indeed Christians, being baptized, but do not represent Christianity in general.

    In seeking to describe Karl Rove accurately, the point is to recognize him as whether or not he fits within one of those categories, which are defined by belief, not whether or not he is baptized and so is a Christian, a status which is defined not by belief but by a sacramental act.

  • Chip

    WOW. People really seem to be engaging with the content of the coverage, don’t you think?

    Come on folks, read the MSM stories.

    You were the one that brought up the Salon article, which is the only one that dealt with Rove’s personal faith (or lack thereof). I “engaged” with that content. I also read the MSM stories, which focused on Rove’s tactics. His unique contributions, like the way he used direct-mail, will likely be his lasting legacy. It, therefore, is appropriate for this to be the focus of the initial coverage of his resignation.

    Again, I think that the religious hook should be how a Christian politician can justify employing a strategist who uses push-polls, slanderous whisper campaigns, the focus on winning 50% plus one, etc. (what you rightly call secular brass knuckle stuff) All of this might be legal, but it’s hardly ethical and it seems to me would bring up some problems for a religious politician. I’m not trying to bash Bush, and would have the same questions about any of the Democratic Presidential candidate who are Christians (Obama, Clinton, Edwards, etc.) if they hired someone who used Rove’s tactics. I don’t recall seeing any stories like that.
    It seems that you think the religion hook is the way that Rove targeted conservative Christians (although you seem to be concerned that nobody is mentioning that Rove is an Episcopalian) That’s fine and I’m sure there could be an interesting story there, but I don’t know that it is unique to Rove and has been written about before.

  • Stephen A.

    Here’s some coverage for you, Terry, et al:

    On FoxNews Sunday, Karl Rove ended this discussion when he said “I’m a Christian. I go to church every Sunday. I’m an Episcopalian.” He said his past comments that he wishes he was a better believer, or as good of a believer as some others in the White House, may have led the media to twist his words into saying he is an agnostic, somehow.

  • Martha

    Is this what we can expect from ‘Get Religion’ between now and the election? I do enjoy your site, but your bias is beginning to show. Linking to an (admittedly) snarky Salon piece? What’s next, Daily Kos references?

  • tmatt

    If they are relevant to a major MSM piece, yes.

    But Salon dealt — in a snarky manner — with the hole that the MSM stories ignored.

    And what is my bias on this one, by the way? Just curious.

  • Stephen A.

    Terry, hmmm, I think you must have a “corporate” bias.*

    Ok, end of snark – for now. ;-)

    *Explanation: That’s what liberals say when challenged about obvious glaringly liberal bias in the MSM, they distract by saying, Oh, no, it’s a “corporate” bias, not a political one. FWIW, I don’t see any bias in his post. Other than in the content of the Leftists who are apparently spreading untruths about Rove’s religion.