I really resent all the coverage of Karl Rove. I understand the impact he had on the political system, that he’s been involved in dirty politics since Nixon, but I find his media beatification completely distasteful. The Right talks about what a genius he was, even though he was wrong half the time and the basic element of his political strategy from the beginning was insinuating that the opposing candidate was gay, and the Left talks about what an idiot he was, even though for about five years we were all so paranoid that we thought anything Republicans did, even if it was entirely stupid, must have been part of some master plan concocted by Karl Rove.

Andrew Sullivan thinks he has irreparably damaged our political system:

Rove is one of the worst political strategists in recent times. He took a chance to realign the country and to unite it in a war – and threw it away in a binge of hate-filled niche campaigning, polarization and short-term expediency. His divisive politics and elevation of corrupt mediocrities to every branch of government has turned an entire generation off the conservative label. And rightly so. It will take another generation to recover from the toxins he has injected, with the president’s eager approval, into the political culture and into the conservative soul.

I refuse to hold Rove entirely responsible for the decisions of President Bush any more than I would hold Dick Morris responsible for Monica Lewinsky. At the end of the day, Bush makes the decisions (or maybe Cheney, history will tell).

However, “Hate filled niche campaigning” as a Republican strategy predates Karl Rove and George W. Bush. Hate filled niche campaigning? That was Newt Gingrich’s stock in trade, and it’s a big part of what won Republicans the Congress in 1994. Molly Ivins wrote in 1998:

When I think of Newt Gingrich, the words that come to mind are sick, pathetic, traitor, ideological, cheat, steal, insecure, bizarre and radical.

The reason those particular words come to mind is because they are the ones that Gingrich himself chose. In a 1990 advisory put out by GOPAC, Gingrich’s political action committee, Republican candidates were advised to use these words to describe their Democratic opponents — no matter who the Democrats were or what their records. The memo further advised that many aspired to the effectiveness of Gingrich’s rhetoric and that these were the favorite words that he always used against his opponents.

Yet, Sullivans‘ political defection is a recent one. Rove didn’t invent the Republican politics of his generation, Rove is a product of recent Republican political culture. The myth of his exceptionality is one that both Left and Right exploited when appropriate, and the media used often as an anchor for the activity they most excel at, reckless speculation about the future of politics.

Need we reach back further? Does campaigning get any more hate filled than Ronald Reagan announcing his 1980 campaign in Mississippi in a town where the Klan killed three civil rights workers? Sidney Blumenthal wrote in 2006:

Some true-life scenes: Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (calling it “humiliating to the South”), and ran for governor of California in 1966 promising to wipe the Fair Housing Act off the books. “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house,” he said, “he has a right to do so.” After the Republican convention in 1980, Reagan travelled to the county fair in Neshoba, Mississippi, where, in 1964, three Freedom Riders had been slain by the Ku Klux Klan. Before an all-white crowd of tens of thousands, Reagan declared: “I believe in states’ rights”.

The only difference between Reagan and Bush as far as dirty campaigning is concerned is that sexual orientation has replaced race as the public intolerance of choice among Republicans. Which is possibly the point at which Andrew Sullivan begins to care, because it certainly didn’t matter to him before.

As for Rove’s biggest regret? “MC Rove”:

Asked by our colleague, Peter Baker, if there is one, just one, thing he really, really regrets, Rove said: “I regret accepting that invitation from CNN and going to that stupid dinner and getting turned into MC Rove.”

Why shouldn’t it be his biggest regret? It was the only time he publicly made a fool of himself. The rest of his career was devoted to destroying other people’s lives, which can be considerably less traumatic for a selfish person.

But Rove didn’t design modern Conservatism. Modern conservatives did. We ought not to lay on him what the entire conservative movement is responsible for.

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