Health Care Mission Accomplished: What Made Rove So Mad?

My, how that remark about the "Mission Accomplished" banner seemed to rile Karl Rove!

David Plouffe, campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2008, appeared Sunday on ABC's This Week with the former political guru for President George W. Bush. After Rove predicted the health care bill would bankrupt America and cause the Democrats "significant losses in November," Plouffe had this rejoinder:

"Well, listen, Karl and a lot of Republicans want to call the [2010] election all over. They ought to break out that 'Mission Accomplished' banner they put on the USS Abraham Lincoln, OK?"

It was immediately clear Plouffe's step had landed on the sorest of Rovian toes.

Rove had already been interrupting at high volume and in rapid-fire fashion, striving to dominate the discussion. He had a white board with numbers and a blizzard of charges about "Bernie Madoff accounting." But he went into overdrive at Plouffe's reference to the ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier, en route to home port at San Diego on May 1, 2003.

"That is cheesy, David," Rove said, interrupting again. And moments later he was demanding an apology to the sailors who served on the Lincoln, saying the banner was their idea and referred only to their ship.

One reason for Rove's choler was obvious. Two other reasons may be more subtle, but ultimately equal in importance.

First, the "Mission Accomplished" banner unfurled on the Lincoln and featured in the immortal TV shot of the president set up by his staff began life as an emblem of triumph and soon became a highly ironic symbol of frustration — even folly. Here was the president declaring "major combat" over when only about 100 Americans had been killed (en route to thousands).

For many, there has never been a victory in Iraq, only the survival of the U.S. commitment there. But whatever one thinks of the current state of play, the Iraq of midyear 2003 was an unfolding fiasco. No one had yet taken the full measure of the insurgency, the sectarian violence and the political warfare that have continued in varying degrees for the ensuing seven years.

Rove, of course, rejected any such implication out of hand on Sunday. But arguing with the national shared memory of 2003 and the drama on that carrier deck is a bit like disputing the message of President Jimmy Carter's 1979 "malaise" speech. The fact that Carter never actually used the word malaise in the speech scarcely alters the impact of that event.

Rove, the man often called "Bush's brain," has never been able to tolerate the idea that the premature grab for victor's laurels in Iraq was a mistake.

But there are two other ways in which this particular phrase, "mission accomplished," might have rankled Rove on this particular weekend.

A moment before Plouffe landed his haymaker, Rove had been asserting that the high percentage of Americans who say "the process is broken" became disillusioned by the current president. Rove said the current president had been too detached and aloof from the country's problems. So, harking back to the days when Americans were being assured there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq suggested that the present disillusionment began before the election of 2008 — and had much to do with its outcome.

But at the bottom line, the idea that Rove and other Republicans are already declaring the November elections a referendum on health care smacks of the same premature certainty expressed by that banner on the Abraham seven years ago.

Or perhaps the bluster of the statement Rove made on NPR in October 2006, when he said he had "THE math" that showed the GOP would retain control of the House and Senate in the elections to be held THAT fall.

Given the way things turned out, neither prediction could be a happy memory for Rove.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.