Moves from Karl Rove’s Playbook

Rove 101: The point is get people to look at the image, rather than the actual candidate.

Politics is a realm of words, gestures, and representations. There are no rules, no ethics, and no overseeing body that regulates the veracity or legality of its actions. In many ways, politics exists in a laissez faire (French for “allow to act”) battlefield. What is laissez faire politics, you ask? The predominant goal in laissez faire politics is to undercut the opposing candidate at any cost, and to recast the desired in any light that is most favorable. And this laissez faire politics is currently underway in the current 2008 presidential election. While existent in both Democratic and Republican camps, it is heavily being touted by the Republicans in recent weeks.

One striking example is the current winds of change; most U.S citizens want change in Washington– more so than ever before. The Obama campaign won the Democratic Primary on this platform- a drastic change in policy and actions compared to the current administration. Throughout the Republican Primary candidates were scrambling to address change as well. Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and John McCain grasped the most attention due to their ability to cast themselves as candidates for change, while remaining supportive of the incumbent Party. In the end, John McCain’s decision to run as a War candidate that is against special interest groups in Washington won him the Republican nomination. As such, McCain had one foot in the ‘change’, and the second foot in the status quo. But after winning the Republican Primary, the McCain campaign realized they needed to challenge the Democrats, who stood as the Change Ticket. To do so required a recasting of John McCain, and what I will term as misdirection for the general public. This was not a first for many people working on the McCain campaign, who have worked in the Bush adminstration (such as the recent addition of Greg Jenkins, who now oversees the stagecraft of the McCain campaign).

In 2004, there was another president who wanted to depict himself as the War candidate that was against special interest groups: George W. Bush. That year the U.S was invested in a contentious war in Iraq, suffering bouts of problems with unemployment and deflation, and a highly unpopular president. To make matters worse, the Democratics had nominated John Kerry, a Vietnam Vet with a strong legislative history in the U.S Senate. The possibility of President George W. Bush becoming re-elected looekd grim. In the 2006 independent documentary So Goes the Nation, James Stern and Adam Del Deo follow Republican and Democratic Party efforts in the state of Ohio. The premise: what happens in Ohio will reflect the overall effect of the country.

This premise was proven correct in 2004; George Bush won in Ohio and, correspondingly, his re-election. But he did not win through policy debates, intellectual prowess, or sheer strength of character. In the end, it was the political methods that cost John Kerry the White House, and allowed Bush his second term. In the documentary reputable workers for both the RNC and DNC talk about the savvy and intelligent moves by the Bush campaign. The Republican Party was able to depict John Kerry as a ‘flip flopper’ and paint this caricature in such a bad light, that Bush’s unpopular moves and decisions were ancillary to it. To demonstrate this tactic, the documentary cuts to a scene in which Bush states that people may not like what he has to say, but at least people know where he stands.

As the clip from the documentary shows, it’s rhetoric that undercut Kerry and sold Bush. When you think about it, there was no substance to it. Bush did not argue why his policies were stronger, he did not talk about his experience being superior. It was a classic case of schoolyard talkdown: you can’t trust this kid, but you can trust me.

According to Real Clear Politics, Barack Obama has held a slight lead over McCain in national polls for the past couple months. It was clear to the McCain campaign that they needed to strengthen his standing in battleground states like Colorado, Ohio and Florida. The Hail Mary move turned out to be his VP pick, Governor Sarah Palin from Alaska. The strategy was simple: strengthen the image of a “change” ticket, appeal to the conservative base, and misdirect the public’s attention. The last tactic has been the most recent tactic found in the media.

People had been focusing on McCain’s rejection of a troubling economy, his pro-war stance, and– in a very ageist light, his eldery state. The McCain campaign’s goal was to reorient everyone’s attention to the young Sarah Palin. To point, it was not Palin’s experience that has benefited McCain the most, but the misdirection she has inadvertently caused (note, Palin has been kept from being interviewed by most of the media since her nomination aside from a short clip in People magazine and a currently divided delay from Oprah). While conservatives salivate over Palin’s Christian fundamentalist values, and Republicans drum up sexist charges against the media, and the media continues to muse about her credentials– whether in sexist or non-sexist ways– the attention has turned away from McCain vs. Obama.

Christian fundamentals are no longer thiking about the “maverick” McCain of old, fiscal conservatives are not thinking about economic issues as topics such as hunting, sexism, and passport remarks fly about. But when the dust settles and the elections have finished, the president will either be John McCain or Barack Obama. The McCain campaign was not able to get people to look at the McCain image, so they came up with something better– have people look at a VP image. Viva la Rove.

  • Pats

    Michael, this is a wonderful piece of work. I hope every body will read it carefully. Not all that glitter is gold

  • Dhd

    Nice essay Michael. Quick error change if you can: laissez faire comes from French not Latin.

  • Michael

    Dhd, thanks for catching that. I will correct it.

  • “Rove 101: The point is get people to look at the image, rather than the actual candidate.”

    Sounds like that could be Obama 101.

    Then again, Obama’s campaign isn’t really concerned with image.

    Or wait, maybe that’s not right…

    Very interesting article though as so much of this campaign is filled with image. Biden was chosen to give Obama a stronger image with regard to foreign policy. Palin was chosen to give McCain a stronger image with regard to the GOP’s conservative base and youthfulness.

  • Nice work Michael.

    Of course it’s all about image. Bush in 2004 couldn’t make himself look like the good guy but he could make Kerry look like a really bad guy. Same thing is happening all over again in 2008, McCain doesn’t really have any answers, so he’s making out Obama would be really bad for the country with no evidence to back it up.


    Pudding McCain has plenty of answers which he has clearly stated, he backs up his Barry criticism well most times I would say to.

  • I’m sorry O_S I think I missed the specifics on how McCain is going to get America out of the shit.

  • change_is_good

    All the rhetoric aside, voting record is all we can really go by. McCain votes with George Bush +90% of the time, and Obama is at around 60%. Which one is really for change? It’s obvious. Just saying you’re for change is not enough, but, if McSame gets in, people, we can only blame ourselves for not standing up and speaking about the issues that matter most to ALL of us. GObama!

  • I don’t know that the shift can be attribuated to Karl Rove. I haven’t seen him do much but talk lately, and the McCain campaign invariably seems to do the opposite from what good old Karl thinks they should. It IS a good attempt, subtle though it may be, to once again link McCain to Bush via Rove. Nice try.

    Nothing about McCain’s message has changed. I think that the “fresh meat” he has given the media in the form of Sarah Palin has made people actually start to listen to the message McCain has been preaching all along. Brilliant move on his part.

    I notice the main poll figure that Obama watches is the confidence level of people concerning the economy. This morning it’s reported that figure has gone from a 19% lead for Obama last week to a 3% lead this week. NOW the Obama camp says that number is not important, even after saying for months now that it’s the MOST important. This is getting really interesting.

  • Karl Rove despite looking like a bowling ball with glasses, is an extremely smart guy always think a few steps ahead of the rest. There’s no way he isn’t been tapped for ideas and what he says publically and behind closed doors aren’t necessarily the same.

  • There are lots of extremely smart guys out there. You forget Karl Rove is the one who started the nasty rumor against McCain about his adopted daughter a few years ago. Or maybe you didn’t know it. Either way, I don’t think McCain likes the guy after that, and he has his own extremely smart guys and gals, he doesn’t need Rove.