War Games–Taking on Karl Rove

We are gearing up for an election only a few months away, and so I think it appropriate to look at someone who looms large in the picture: Karl Rove. Let us say a few things about him for which there is certainly no argument:

  • He is intensely competitive. He cannot stand losing. When he is involved in an election in which his man or woman looks like they are in trouble, Mr. Rove tends to go dirty. Sometimes real dirty. This is not legend but fact. I draw your attention to this excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly.
  • Mr. Rove is a master of distraction. He appears to be doing something for one set purpose, but it is actually for something else. He conceals his intentions this way. He stirs up a lot of confusing emotions around something simple, to create enough fog so that nothing is clear, least of all his client’s past mistakes.
  • He focuses in on the center of gravity of any competitive situation. If he is in charge of an electoral campaign for judges or congress, he chooses the key battles into which he puts his energy and resources. His most interesting use of the center of gravity is to attack his opponent’s strengths, not his weaknesses. By knocking out an opponent’s strengths, he cuts the legs out from under him. (See chapter 16 in The 33 Strategies of War for a discussion of hitting critical vulnerabilities.) An example of this would be the swiftboating of Kerry. He went after Kerry’s war record, what a normal person would consider unassailable and not worth attacking. This is a clever strategy on his part. As a corollary to this, he will work to strengthen his own side’s weaknesses, neutralizing the enemy’s attacks on this point. Mr. Rove does not like to give his opponents any targets to hit. (This is Rove’s key strategy, the center of his gravity!)
  • He will aim at wedge issues, following the divide and conquer strategy. This is something he inherited from the late Lee Atwater.
  • He is a proponent of the Napoleonic counterattack, a sudden and unexpected charge against an opponent’s weaknesses, generally something in his character. This is often allied with a campaign that has gone dirty.
  • Mr. Rove loves to control the dynamic. He seeks to determine the parameters of the argument, drawing opponent’s into discussions that are not of their choosing, baiting them into hot-button arguments that lead them off message. He always aims for control.
  • He is a master of detail and organization. He comes up with a large plan for an election, almost like a general mapping out a grand strategy. And he keeps to it no matter what happens. Kind of like a football coach who draws up the first fifteen plays. He weaves his tactics and strategies into a seamless web.

Clearly he has identified the Iraq War as a kind of center of gravity here. He must control the debate around this issue. It is his opponent’s apparent strength, as all polls indicate that the war is unpopular. He will aim to distract, to create enough fog around this issue so that nobody knows what it is really about any more. Emotions will get heated, and no one will look quite right. He will turn it around: to be in favor of withdrawal is to be soft on the war on terror. The Democrat strength will turn into a weakness, as it turns on the issue of national security. He will hammer this home in battle after battle, until the Democrats will either be forced to answer with a concrete solution to the War (a weakness of theirs) or will avoid it, which indicates another kind of weakness. A dilemma he poses.

He will use events in the news to always control the dynamic and frame them his way. A terrorist plot to blow up planes will fit the national security question. The Israel and Lebanon struggle will fit into the broader picture of terror. No matter what is prominent in the news–Castro dying, oil prices spiking, down or upturn in the economy–he will move first to frame its meaning the Republican way.

He will keep to this script. His goal will be to stir up enough emotions on wedge issues, such as gay marriage or flag burning, that Democrats will get angry, and say all kinds of things, all of which will only serve to light a fire under the Republicans’ base, a key factor in his strategy, and a brilliant use of concealing intentions. He will accept some losses in both houses, but the goal is to not lose control of either. The doomsday scenario is to lose control of both and to have all kinds of investigations opened up by Democrats that may uncover more bad things (Halliburton?) and lead to criminal charges.

With that in mind, he will pour time and energy into key battlegrounds to avoid that fate, conceding some seats here and there. Everything will be a set up to 2008, the real prize. This election is only a part of a larger campaign to build a period of Republican dominance. He knows the Republicans have taken a large step backwards with the War (he is no fool). He wants to buy them time to right the ship, and build the kind of electoral lock that will keep the Republicans in power for a long time. He is not a right-wing ideologue as some might think, but a pragmatist and in that sense may very well prefer a more pragmatic candidate in 2008 than the ideological Bush. If this 2006 election starts to look bad, he will go dirty and nasty. Whisper campaigns are part of this, as well as all kinds of skullduggery. He cannot afford to lose both houses.

The question to Democrats: this is all out there. It is clear what is coming on the horizon–the stakes, the strategies, etc. How do you defend against this? What are the plans of the Democrats? Are they prepared for a nasty fight in which fairness and rationality will be thrown out the window? Will they end up losing the election and complaining about Republican tactics and strategies, or will they have a defense and offense in place? All indications are that they are as chaotic and unprepared as usual. In normal times, this is their election to lose. What would your answer be, how would you counter this strategic beast named Rove, wresting control from him and putting him on the defensive? It is you versus Rove, mano a mano.

I will answer your ideas with my own.

Discussion and Comment thread

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