Washington Karl Rove changed history.
He managed four campaigns that will define America for a generation. None of these campaigns was easy or obvious, and that is why Rove will rightfully be remembered for his role in American politics. Who, after all, recalls who ran LBJ's 1964 presidential campaign or Ronald Reagan's re-election bid in 1984?
First, Rove managed the campaign to make the Texas of Lyndon Baines Johnson a Reagan Republican state, not only in presidential elections but also for statewide offices. In 1994 and 1998, Rove advised the gubernatorial campaigns of George W. Bush, the first governor in Texas history elected to consecutive four-year terms. Before the 1994 election, Democrats controlled the state House (92 to 58) and the state Senate (18 to 13). Today, Gov. Rick Perry, a Reagan Republican, works with a GOP majority in the House (81 to 68) and the Senate (20 to 11).
2000 GOP primary
Rove's second big accomplishment was the 2000 Republican primary. Arizona Sen. John McCain ran as a former prisoner of war with tons of charisma and several million dollars in network campaign contributions in the form of cheerleading thinly veiled as media coverage. A McCain win would have changed the Republican Party from the Reagan coalition of limited government into one led by a populist seeking approval from the establishment press on taxes, guns, energy and judges. Yes, Bush began the 2000 campaign as a "compassionate conservative" - whatever that was - but after losing New Hampshire with this strategy, he re-energized the entire Reagan coalition in South Carolina and beyond. He won a majority of registered Republicans voting in every single primary.
In the 2000 general election, Rove managed to defeat Al Gore, the sitting vice president of a nation prosperous and at peace. The modern Democratic Party has a habit of trashing its failed candidates (see: Carter, Dukakis, Mondale), but history should note that Gore had already run for president once and had been elected vice president twice, and that in 2000 Gore ran well, having prepared for that campaign his entire adult life. Yet Rove's candidate still won.
Rove's fourth major victory was in 2004, when he managed a tremendous get-out-the-vote effort that swamped the serious network of "527" groups and organized labor that buttressed and dwarfed Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign. Rove carried his candidate across the finish line despite the millstone of the Iraq occupation. And this was no lonely, president-centric victory as in 1972. Republicans gained House and Senate seats in 2004 after having made history with their midterm gains in 2002. That's team ball, played well.
Attacks from the left
Rove became the bÃte noire of the left. As with Newt Gingrich a decade earlier, the left concentrated fire on the man seen as commanding the Republican Party and the conservative movement. The Valerie Plame attacks fizzled. They call him names and insist that his political victories were divisive, as opposed to the "Kumbaya"-accompanied velvet revolutions won by Democrats in, say, 1964 or 1974.
Some on the left hoped the Republicans' loss of Congress in 2006 was a repudiation of Rove's stated goal of creating a lasting Republican majority. If Democrats had run in 2006 openly demanding higher taxes, $2 trillion in additional spending, 38,000 secret earmarks and the end to secret balloting for union elections, Rove would have had a real reason to fear that his center-right coalition was not a majority movement. They, of course, did not.
Rove plans to leave the White House at the end of August, but history does not allow for retirements. There are two contests left before he can write history rather than make it. First is the 2008 election. Second is the goal Rove put before the entire center-right movement: to create a conservative Republican majority in Congress to last a generation - similar to that won by Republicans after the Civil War and by Democrats after the Great Depression - and to do it in normal times, not in the wake of a major domestic upheaval.
The 2008 election may not be overseen by Rove, but he has already prepared the battlefield. Democrats in the House and Senate have put forward visions of massive spending and tax increases. Bush has promised vetoes that will define the two parties in useful ways. This year, congressional Democrats have followed the path of Democrats in 1993 and 1994 on taxes, spending, guns and social issues. Their presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, will now spend eight months proving that she is almost as far left as Barack Obama and John Edwards. It doesn't take a genius to manage the rest of this campaign.
The Republicans won control of the Texas government two years after Karl Rove left Austin, bound for the White House. Rove's vision of the modern Republican Party as the dominant governing power will perhaps take longer to establish than he had hoped. But it is more likely and will come sooner for his life and work.