“It is a dangerous distraction to know as much about politics as Karl Rove knows,” Bruce Reed, the domestic-policy chief in Bill Clinton’s administration, told me. “If you know every single poll number on every single issue and every interest group’s objection and every political factor, it can be paralyzing to try to make an honest policy decision. I think the larger, deeper problem was that they never fully appreciated that long-term success depended on making sure your policies worked.”
It somehow seems fitting that Karl Rove's work in the White House ended about the same time as The World Weekly News quit publishing. Karl Rove had extensive knowledge of politics - he knew about the fears and tendencies of just over 50% of the American polity. Just as The World Weekly News knew that there was demand for stories about Bigfoot and UFOs, Karl Rove knew that there was demand for stories about the threat of jihad and individual greatness that could not be attained because of a government that taxes and regulates too much.
As it turns out, there is a correlation between politics and policy, but it has a time lag. Politicians can work on Americans' fears and give them a target for their anger, organizing a lynching party into the Middle East to avenge a wrong. At that point, the politics and policy diverge. Americans want revenge and they don’t' care about silly little clarifications about how Iraq had nothing to do with the tragedy of 9-11. Later, though, when popular politics leads to unpopular policy - the equivalent of loving chocolate but hating our fat thighs - Americans sour on the politics.
Karl Rove doesn't have a good sense of history. He defines himself as someone with a great sense of history, but he likes to point to McKinley as a president who, with Republican Party kingmaker Mark Hannah, redefined the GOP in 1896. Even this point, though, Rove misses. McKinley was assassinated and largely dismissed by history as an unimportant president. Teddy Roosevelt gained the presidency when McKinley was shot. Roosevelt was a Republican but one who Hannah put into the vice Presidency in order to remove from power. Roosevelt was a Republican but one who championed reforms that eventually led to his breaking away from the Republican Party and forming his Bull Moose Party. There were indeed major historical forces at work at the close of the 19th century, but it was not McKinley who was in touch with them but, rather, Roosevelt.
Mark Twain once quipped that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds." Because of Rove's assurances about parallels to McKinley, Bush now believes that his policies are more popular than they seem. Karl Rove's poll numbers could tell him how to win elections. They could not tell him how to govern. He could read poll numbers but not the course of history. Because he could not distinguish between effective politics and effective policy, this country is worse off than when he and George first set their sights on the White House.