Karl Rove's Legacy: Sage Tactics, Political Savvy

Karl Rove is set to leave the White House. His title was deputy chief of staff, but he will be remembered as one of the most influential political strategists in modern history. His tactics will be studied by other political strategists for years to come.

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This is the last day at the White House for Karl Rove. His title was deputy chief of staff, but he'll be remembered as one of the most influential political strategists in modern history.

As you can hear in this audio clip from C-SPAN's "Presidential Library" series, that was a future that a 21-year-old Karl Rove never imagined for himself.

(Soundbite of TV show "Presidential Libraries")

Mr. KARL ROVE (Deputy Chief of Staff, White House): They claim I'm a professional, but I doubt that that's true, because I think everyone's image of professional is someone who knows that they have some abilities in politics and intend to make it their life career. I don't think I have too many abilities, and I certainly don't intend to make it my career.

INSKEEP: Karl Rove more than three decades ago. His tactics will be studied by other political strategists for years to come.

Renee Montagne spoke with one of Rove's former colleagues about his political legacy.


Mark Mckinnon is a political strategist, and he was media adviser for President Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns. He joined us on the line from Austin, Texas. Hello.

Mr. MARK MCKINNON (Political Strategist) Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, the 2008 presidential election is, for all intents and purposes, upon us, even though it's still 2007. Between now and voting day, are we going to see a different campaign than the ones Karl Rove ran for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, the best campaigns are the campaigns that don't look back but look ahead, and don't try and run a campaign that's been run before. But they also try to adapt the winning strategies and tactics of past campaigns as well. And I think we're already seeing manifest a lot of the Karl Rove strategy. And ironically, we're seeing a lot of that strategy adopted by the frontrunner of the Democratic nomination process, Hillary Clinton.

MONTAGNE: Give us some examples. In what way?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, her campaign looks very much like the Bush campaign of 1999 and 2000, in which she is building a 50-state strategy. She is the frontrunner. She's trying to communicate some sense of inevitability. The idea of this kind of strategy is to build it in a way that you can survive an insurgency like Bush had with John McCain and Hillary Clinton should expect from somebody like Barack Obama.

You know, it's interesting to hear Barack Obama's speech. I like him a lot and I like a lot of his message. And it reminds me a lot, ironically, of George Bush's message in 1999. He's talking about a new tone, different kind of politics. But you get through the primary process and you get to Washington and it's just a different game, and it's heavy combat.

MONTAGNE: How responsible is Karl Rove for the divisiveness that's perceived to exist in politics now, and especially in Washington politics?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, I think it's over-dramatized and overplayed and subscribes to some conventional wisdom. What I believe is that President Bush came in with very good intentions to Washington, D.C. But that whole idea of trying to create a new tone in Washington was made impossible by the recount. What the recount did was polarize the election immediately, before the president was ever even inaugurated, and really poisoned the well in Washington because Democrats just thought he was not a legitimate president from the beginning. Now, that's not to say there wasn't shared blame on both parties and individuals and representatives.

MONTAGNE: Although Karl Rove was a great strategist, no matter what one's feelings about him are, could he not have either overcome that or can he not take some blame for using divisiveness as part of his strategy?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, again, there's a lot of conventional wisdom about that. The pundits talk about Karl Rove and the base election of 2004. If Karl Rove had run a base election, then John Kerry would have been president. Because the fact is, in that campaign, Karl Rove had a strategy that added 11 million new Republican voters. And you don't do that through a base election. You do that through reaching out to new voters with new messages and micro targeting and adding to the roll. So the Democrats ran a perfect strategy and turned around and realized that they had run a base strategy and the Republicans reached out to new voters.

MONTAGNE: Twenty years from now, what do you think political strategists will learn, will be still doing that Karl Rove did?

Mr. MCKINNON: There have been, in recent years, political strategists who had one skill set. They were sort of generalists. The thing about Karl that made him unique was that he could do everything in a campaign. He understood the polling. He understood the media. He understood the mail. He understood the grassroots effort. He cannot only drive the car, but he could take out the engine, take it apart, and out it back together. That's the thing that, 20 years from now, people will look back and say Karl Rove was the real innovator.

MONTAGNE: Mark McKinnon is a Republican strategist speaking to us from Austin, Texas. Thank you very much.

Mr. MCKINNON: Thanks, Renee.

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