By Ben Cohen: Karl Rove took one of the least intellectually curious and incapable candidates in US history to two victories in Presidential elections – an extraordinary feat that has sealed his reputation as one of America’s greatest political strategists. Rove used a simple formula to propel George W. Bush into the White House and keep him there for 8 years, and one that President Obama seems to be adopting as he fights to keep his Presidency.
Rove relied on the following four principles to guide Bush’s strategy in 2000 and 2004:
1. Fight from the base
2. Control the message
3. Set the agenda
4. Never admit mistakes
Al Gore and John Kerry were highly intelligent and capable leaders, but their inability to follow guiding principles meant Bush continually forced them to react to his maneuvers, making them look weak and ineffective in the process. Bush took strong positions that appealed to his base, making it clear where he stood on issues like gay marriage, gun control, abortion and taxes. He stuck religiously to scripted responses, and never wavered from his message. His election team and party also rarely stepped out of line and unified behind him creating a sense of solidarity that defined his campaigns.
Bush would also effectively set the terms for debate. He would take a position then watch as his opponents attempted to play catch up – often triangulating to the point where it wasn’t clear where they stood on anything.
In the third debate between Bush and Kerry, the moderator asked the two men where they stood on the federal funding of abortion. Here was Kerry’s response:
As a president, I have to represent all the people in the nation. And I have to make that judgment.
Now, I believe that you can take that position and not be pro- abortion, but you have to afford people their constitutional rights. And that means being smart about allowing people to be fully educated, to know what their options are in life, and making certain that you don’t deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the constitution affords them if they can’t afford it otherwise.
That’s why I think it’s important. That’s why I think it’s important for the United States, for instance, not to have this rigid ideological restriction on helping families around the world to be able to make a smart decision about family planning. You’ll help prevent AIDS. You’ll help prevent unwanted children, unwanted pregnancies. You’ll actually do a better job, I think, of passing on the moral responsibility that is expressed in your question. And I truly respect it.
And Bush’s response:
I’m trying to decipher that. My answer is, we’re not going to spend taxpayers’ money on abortion. This is an issue that divides America, but certainly reasonable people can agree on how to reduce abortions in America. I signed the partial-birth — the ban on partial-birth abortion. It’s a brutal practice. It’s one way to help reduce abortions. My opponent voted against the ban. I think there ought to be parental notification laws. He’s against them.
Americans don’t tend to do nuance, and Bush exploited this perfectly when contrasting his positions to Kerry’s.
Finally, Bush never admitted mistakes, particularly in 2004 when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were going horribly, and it turned out there were no ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ – his primary argument for taking out Saddam Hussein. It was infuriating for half of the country to watch, but it made Bush look strong and decisive, while Kerry had to justify his shifting positions on the war (he voted for both of them, then claimed he was mislead).
Bush’s Presidential campaigns were far from perfect, but they focused on long term principles rather than short term maneuvering. It worked, and Rove’s playbook deserved considerable recognition.
Other than the fourth principle, President Obama is following Rove’s election guidelines perfectly.
In 2008, Obama made a wise decision to tout his anti war record when facing off against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards – both of whom had voted from the Iraq war. This appealed to younger generations and the Democratic base, all whom felt extreme anger about the war and how it had been handled. Obama attracted a record number of young voters and brought out the base in droves. In 2012, Obama is again reaching out to his base by highlighting health care and immigration reform and his position on gay marriage.
In 2012 Obama is now expertly controlling the message – he has his party lined up behind him repeating talking points with military precision. After the Supreme Court ruling on health care, Democratic leaders came out and repeated the President’s line virtually word for word. When Newark Mayor Cory Booker criticized Obama on his ads attacking Romney for his record at Bain capital, he was slapped down from every corner of the party until he stepped back into line (which he did very, very quickly). The message is now clear – follow the talking points, or risk alienation from the party.
Most importantly, Obama is setting the agenda. He did this reasonably well in 2008, but spent a lot of time deflecting the relentless attacks form the Clinton camp. Obama has clearly learned from his mistakes and is now continually forcing Romney to react to his moves, and not the other way around. This is coming as a bit of a surprise to the Republicans as they have spent over 3 years bashing Obama without having to play defense. Obama has set the terms of debate when it comes to the economy, immigration, health care reform and gay marriage by stating a clear position that is not open to interpretation, and he is hammering Romney for his inability to speak clearly on them. Here was Obama on Romney’s track record at Bain Capital last week:
Just last week, it was reported that Governor Romney’s old firm owned companies that were ‘pioneers’ — this is not my phrase, but how it was described in the report — ‘pioneers’ in the business of outsourcing American jobs to places like China and India. Yesterday, his advisers tried to clear this up by telling us that there was a difference between ‘outsourcing’ and ‘offshoring.’ Seriously. You can’t make that up.
The theme is consistent: Obama takes a stance, while Romney flip flops. The immigration ruling in Arizona and the decision to grant 800,000 young people a path to citizenship was also another example of Obama’s decisiveness. Obama took the initiative and made his position clear, while Romney waited for opinion polls to make his mind up.
Obama is not following the fourth of Rove’s principles – to never admit mistakes – because so far, he hasn’t had to. Bush made mistakes and never learned from them, whereas Obama clearly has. And there’s a good argument to be made that this makes Obama look even more powerful. He spent much of his first term allowing Republicans to dictate the agenda and set the terms of debate, but no longer. The reversal is noticeable, and impressive.
As Obama and his team go about defining the election, he won’t have to talk about mistakes he has made, because Romney will be too busy defending his.
Somewhere deep inside Karl Rove’s murky heart, he must be impressed with the 2012 version Barack Obama. He’s turned into a master strategist using Rove’s own playbook, and is beating his candidate to the punch every time.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.