Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s ’68 former chief political advisor, spoke at a Yale Political Union event at the Yale Law School on Tuesday. WEEKEND caught up with the strategist-turned-pundit to chat about college, the media, and the Obama presidency.
Q You got your start at the College Republican National Committee, what do you think the role of college students is in national politics.
A Well they’re a growing part of the electorate simply because more and more people are going to college. But also; college is a great incubator of political leadership and political spirit. It’s a useful venue for candidates to appear and for political activity to be undertaken. And I just think; I got active when I was in high school, but many of my peers got active when they were in college, and many of them have kept their interest ever since.
Q You’re now writing for the Wall Street Journal, you’ve appeared on Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh show, how do you see your role in the media? When you were working in the Bush administration it was sometimes portrayed negatively, but how do you see yourself now?
A Well I’m not a journalist. I’m a commentator. So I write opinion pieces, and when I appear on Fox, I don’t appear under the guise of a journalist. I’m an expert. And in order for viewers to understand that I have a background, they always introduce me as a former senior advisor to President Bush because they want people to understand “put up your filter if you want to because this guy served under the Bush administration.”
Q How, if at all, has this new role as a pundit altered your view on the media?
A Not a lot, but I’ve become more aware of the intense pressure that they’re on to compete, and to collect information and get it right, and to compete. And it’s confirmed what I’ve thought about the speed of the news cycle. When we were at the White House, I remember having lunch with a fellow who had helped organize the Reagan reelection campaign, and he said in 1984, they’d get up and think what was the one picture they wanted to have for the day. But once they got that picture they were over for the day. And I thought: god, we have to live in 6 or 7 news cycles a day, in which an issue or an image might dominate.
Q So why did you take on this new role? What is your purpose in writing your commentaries for the Wall Street Journal?
A Well, I like the window. It’s a wonderful window for me to have. I mean, I feel honored to be able to do it; not too many people have a chance to write every Thursday about politics and policy, and be read by millions of people. And I try and take it seriously.
Q Through this window, you have spoken out against the Park 51 Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan…
A Well, I don’t think I have in the Wall Street Journal, but I have on television. I’m disturbed by it. First of all, I thought the president initially handled it right which was to leave this decision to be made in New York. But once the president of the United States did what he did at the Iftar dinner, and then did what he did the next morning by both almost simultaneously saying “I favor in the strongest terms possible the right to build this at this site,” and then to say the next morning “I wasn’t commenting on whether this is the right site or not.” He elevated the issue, and as a result I felt like it became a question that now keeps coming up.
Q So to transition a little bit, the final chapter in your book is called “Rove the Myth.” How do you see your lasting legacy in American politics?
A You know, I don’t think anybody has… Well, there are some people who have a lasting legacy, but I’m not going to be one of them. I mean, I do think I’ve made some contributions and have had some opportunities that hopefully I’ve handled. But I don’t think in terms of legacies.
Q You said of the 2006 election season that Republicans were “on the run,” and they didn’t fair too much better in 2008. What, if any, mistakes do you think the Republican party made? And what lessons do you think they need to have learned to win back Congress this coming election season?
A Well, the first problem was in 2006, as I say in the book, the Democrat theme was ‘Culture of Corruption,’ and they had a right, and people went to Washington and stopped acting in conformity with their values. They started … particularly earmarks were insidious. We had members of Congress literally go to jail for earmarks. So I think they first and foremost lesson is ‘do in office what you say you will do on the campaign trail, don’t do the opposite.’ If you say that you’re going to be a trusty steward of the people’s money don’t go there and start engaging in earmarks. And the second thing in 2008 was that we should have gone on the offense. When you have, like we had, a crisis about the financial sector of our economy, [you should] explain to the American people what happened and why. The fact that we wouldn’t say this happened because Fanny and Freddy were sellers of government-sponsored enterprises whose collapse acted as an accelerate to this crisis, was a real problem for the GOP.
Q So final question because we’re being pressured…
A Just ignore those guys. They’re over there talking so they’re ignoring us.
[Handler in a suit walks over]
HANDLER: No, just one last one.
Q OK, so, in terms of how Obama had to pick up where Bush left off in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis, how would you compare the approaches taken by the Bush and the Obama administrations? And what’s one thing the Obama administration has done right?
A Well, one thing he’s done right is that he didn’t do what he led people to believe he was going to do by his comments in 2007, and that is to immediately withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Instead, he has patiently executed the status of forces agreement negotiated with the Iraqis by President Bush which called for the end of the combat operations by this August and removal of U.S. troops unless the Iraqis ask us to remain by next summer. The second thing that he did was that he overcame his bitter critique of the Iraqi surge and drew on those same principles to fashion a somewhat similar policy in Afghanistan and then had the courage, once the opportunity presented itself, to ask the architect of the surge strategy, General Petraeus, to takeover the responsibility in Afghanistan.
Q So what would you say are the fundamental differences between the two administrations?
HANDLER: We gotta go.