Wednesday, August 15, 2007

If Angels Were to Govern Men, There Would Be No Karl Rove

WASHINGTON – "Bush's Brain." "The Architect." "The Strategist." Karl Rove has accumulated quite a few nicknames in his four decades as a Republican political operative. Known as a dirty-trickster since his college days, Rove's take-no-prisoners campaign style became the tactical linchpin in the decade-long Republican realignment of Texas – and each of the last four national elections.

Of course, Rove didn't invent hardball politics. He simply pushed the envelope further than his Republican predecessors might have thought possible. And most importantly, Rove reveled in his association with what an earlier generation might have deemed beyond the pale.

Rove relished his role as a cherubic bad boy. With each of his successes, he grew giddier. Much like a ten-year-old frying ants with a magnifying glass, Rove seemed to delight in the gruesome nature of his opponents' particular destruction, without either the wit or contrition of the late, archetypal dirty-trickster, Lee Atwater.

To many, Rove was overrated.

To us, Rove was a foil. He was "bad cop" to George W. Bush's "good cop." By goading the press into positioning Rove as a smirking version of "The Dark Lord," Rove successfully deflected attribution of his tactics to his clients – who where, after all, the ultimate "deciders" in each of Rove's political campaigns. Rove, his minions, and his imitators may have run roughshod over our electoral system. Rove may have tainted his profession, that of the paid political consultant, for generations to come. But, it was those who paid for his services who ought to be held accountable. For it is they who have reaped this acrid crop.

In the end, history may reduce Mr. Rove's importance to an asterisk. He was not the architect of the Republicans' Southern Strategy that not only elected Richard Nixon, but forged a complete, and some may deem, permanent, political realignment of the South. Rove did not "strategerize" landslide victories for George W. Bush in either 2000 or 2004 as Ed Rollins did for Ronald Reagan in 1984 or as Bob Teeter and Lee Atwater did for George H.W. Bush in 1988 – under far harsher political climates. No, Rove's lasting mark will likely be the level of toxicity that currently corrodes the political profession – and American politics as a global brand. And, unlike the toxicity of his predecessors, we are deeply concerned that this Rovian toxicity is radioactive, with a half-life destined to last for countless generations.

Can our political culture "re-brand" itself? Yes. But, we must be vigilant in our expectations. We must demand true accountability from our leaders, while carefully filtering out the nonsensical jabs foisted upon us those who seek political advantage through the politics of personal destruction and not the critical engagement of political ideals. Is this overly altruistic? Absolutely. But, our nation was founded by pragmatic visionaries, not cynics. Our Founders understood history and human and political nature with tremendous depth – which is precisely the reason that our power is divided into three distinct branches and further subdivided by the people who hold office within those branches.

As James Madison writes in The Federalist, Number 51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
Perhaps, "If angels were to govern men," they might ensure that those who help to elect them rise to a similar standard of greatness. Honorable leadership is possible. But, first we must be willing to honor the process.

We can only pray that Mr. Rove, and his cynical, kindred spirits across the globe, will simply huff, take their marbles, and go home when they realize that the market for their brand of politics has shriveled in the face of true political debate.

At the very least, a little Lee Atwater-style repentance from Rove and his ilk might take us one step closer to a more idyllic political landscape. Just a hope.

(Editor's note: For Zoë. Happy Anniversary.)

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