Monday, August 20, 2007
Day after day last week, outgoing White House political strategist Karl Rove delivered slashing attacks on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner. Her healthcare record was "spotty and poor," he declared. Her candidacy was "fatally flawed," he said. And no one with her negative poll numbers, he stated, "has ever won the presidency."
Why did Rove, who often stays in the background, step forward to deliver such public attacks -- especially when the Democrats haven't begun to choose their presidential candidate for 2008 and when the general election is more than a year away?
The answer might seem obvious: Rove saw Clinton as a formidable opponent and wanted to get his licks in early.
For high-level campaign professionals like Rove, however, that kind of thinking may be too simple.
The decision to focus on the New York senator to the exclusion of other potentially formidable Democratic standard-bearers such as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois offered a rare glimpse into a world where things are not always what they seem -- the world of modern-day electioneering, whose denizens often prefer going from A to B by way of Z.
In this case, Rove's weeklong broadside against Clinton ... looks suspiciously like an exercise in reverse psychology that his team employed three years ago when it was preparing for President Bush's reelection bid.
The ploy was described by Rove lieutenant Matthew Dowd during a postmortem conference on the 2004 election at Harvard University the month after Bush defeated Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
In the run-up to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when it was not yet clear who Bush's opponent would be that November, Rove and his aides had begun to fear that their most dangerous foe would be then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
With his Southern base, charismatic style and populist message, Edwards, they believed, could be a real threat to Bush's reelection.
But instead of attacking Edwards, Rove's team opened fire at Kerry.
Their thinking went like this, Dowd explained: Democrats, in a knee-jerk reaction to GOP attacks, would rally around Kerry, whom Rove considered a comparatively weak opponent, and make him the party's nominee. Thus Bush would be spared from confronting Edwards, the candidate Republican strategists actually feared most.
Unlike Kerry, who had been in public service for decades, Edwards was a political newcomer and lacked a long record that could be attacked. And, unlike former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who had been the front-runner but whose campaign was collapsing in Iowa, Edwards couldn't easily be painted as "nutty."
If that sounds implausibly convoluted, consider Dowd's own words:
"Whomever we attacked was going to be emboldened in Democratic primary voters' minds.
"So we started attacking John Kerry a lot in the end of January because we were very worried about John Edwards," Dowd said. "And we knew that if we focused on John Kerry, Democratic primary voters would sort of coalesce" around Kerry.
"It wasn't like we could tag [eliminate] somebody. Whomever we attacked was going to be helped," he said.