Courage and Consequence is both a personal memoir and Karl Rove’s effort to rehabilitate the reputation of the president he served with unflagging loyalty and affection. Although Rove left his post as a Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush in 2007, it is evident he has not abandoned “the fight” referred to in the title of his book. Rove is deeply committed to the Founders’ vision of America and he has defended that vision throughout his years on the political front lines and continues to do so.
Because he has been an extremely effective combatant, he became the Democrats’ very own Darth Vader; the target of an enmity that crossed the line to visceral hatred. The consequences for Rove and his wife and son are recounted in his book.
Rove was a political prodigy. He ran the National College Republicans when he was 22 and went on found his own company and become an enormously successful political consultant. Among his most notable achievements, he helped unseat a popular Democrat to elect George W. Bush Governor of Texas, and masterminded Bush’s successful presidential campaigns.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is his explanation of the working parts of political campaigns, and the war stories he tells. For political junkies, that alone is worth the price of the book.
Rove provides a detailed account of the 2000 election and the Gore challenge of Florida’s votes. That election haunted Bush’s first term and continues to be an issue even now. Democrats and the liberal press never forgave him for Al Gore’s defeat. Having developed a respectful working relationship with the Democrat legislature in Texas as governor, Bush was ill prepared for the perfidy and acrimony he faced as president.
Rove describes the cynical machinations and deviousness of Democratic leaders in their efforts to sink the Bush presidency. With a remarkable dispassion that only occasionally gives way to outrage, he recounts the behavior of high-ranking congressional Democrats who endorsed the Iraq War and then, when it became politically advantageous, denied their endorsement.
Republicans don’t get a free ride. Rove condemns the spineless behavior of congressional Republicans who failed to support the president’s efforts to reform Social Security because they feared it would hurt their re-elections. In consequence, there was no congressional effort to reform Social Security and for the first time, more is being spent than collected. Rove reminds us that President Bush’s effort to put Social Security on sound financial footing was defeated by the cowardice of his own party as well as by the vengeful Democrats.
Rove disappoints, however, by not condemning Bush’s failure to control spending – a failure that disenchanted voters and may have contributed to the election of Barack Obama and Republican congressional losses in 2008.
Rove provides some historical context for the meltdown of the housing market. Conveniently forgotten, if it ever was reported, were the repeated warnings (well in advance of the meltdown) Bush gave a heedless Congress about problems with Fannie May and Freddie Mac. The bill that Bush proposed to increase federal regulation of those entities garnered not a single Democrat vote. Among those who opposed reform was the freshman senator from Illinois, Barak Obama. As Rove points out, President Obama repeatedly blames Bush “for the problems I inherited” but never admits his own role in creating them. Rove also notes that Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emannuel, was on the board of Freddie Mac at the time.
When Bush took office, he was faced with an economy, in Rove’s words, “lurching into recession,” and taxes that were taking a bigger bite out of the US economy than in any year since 1944. However, Bush did not blame Clinton for his problems. Instead, acting on the premise that tax cuts would stimulate the economy and create new jobs, Bush sent Congress a tax relief package that, among other initiatives to reduce the tax burden, lowered the top rate to 35%, reduced federal income tax rates for anyone who paid income taxes and doubled the child tax credit. It worked until the economic fallout from 9/11 caused revenues to plummet and the recession deepened.
Rove’s account of the president’s response to 9/11 is instructive. A stricken New York City needed help and it was tendered immediately. By contrast, President Obama was slow to assist the Gulf, but quick to use the BP oil spill to promote an energy policy already rejected by most Americans.
Rove describes the emotional visit to Ground Zero and the president’s impromptu speech from atop a wrecked fire truck. Rove writes, “No speechwriters, no aides, no advisers were involved … It was an authentic moment that connected with the public in a strong, deep way.”
Although Rove does not dwell on them, the differences between GWB and the present occupant of the Oval Office are impossible to ignore. Bush coined the phrase “war on terror” to express resolve in confronting those who threaten America. That terminology has now been censored. A March 2010 memo instructed staffers “this administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror’ [GWOT.] Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.” Terms such as “jihad” and “Islamic extremism” are no longer permitted, apparently to persuade Muslim countries that America bears them no ill will.
Bush understood, as this administration clearly does not, that to defeat an enemy it is necessary to be clear about his motives. “Overseas Contingency Operation” is a bloodless phrase that does not reflect the nature of those who wish to harm us. Bush was guided by the realism of George Washington who advised, “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known, that we are at all times ready for War.”
The Rove book portrays a patriot and a gentleman of character who refused to engage his opponents on their level. The former president’s silence, in the face of repeated and unprecedented assaults by a sitting president upon his predecessor, reflects that character.
Rove’s efforts not withstanding, the Bush record will continue to be debated. The Patriot Act, and No Child Left Behind, to mention just two controversial measures, have caused divisions within the Republican Party as well as heightened disagreements between the parties. However, the assessments of Bush partisans and opponents are transitory and irrelevant. The only judgment that matters, as always, will be rendered by history.