Huffpost Media

Dueling Banjoes: Karl N' Kos Debut in Newsweek

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As promised, Newsweek has debuted the first columns from Karl Rove and Markos Moulitsas in this week's issue (Rove's is here, Kos' is here). It's pretty amazing that these two columns are being packaged together (peas n' carrots, Kos n' Karl!) and promoted on the same level, considering that Karl Rove is the classic insider and Markos Moulitsos is the classic outsider — you don't get more inside than being the BFF of the president, and there's not a whole lot more outside than railing against the system on your blog (well, at least until you write a book, go on "Meet The Press" and star in a television commercial for Ned Lamont).

What's interesting about these two columns, juxtaposed, is how emblematic they are of their sides. Kos' is thoughtful and reasoned, not personal except for attacking George Bush on his record, laying out point by point why his presidency was a failure. It's a good, strong piece, well-argued, just like lots of articles written by Democrats are good, strong, well-argued pieces.

Then there's Rove, who leads with an anecdote about what life was like on the inside at the White House. Golly gosh, who doesn't remember when they moved their stuff into the West Wing? Rove's column grabs you instantly with its insider access.Then, he grabs you with a personal attack: Hillary Clinton is "hard and brittle," and his anecdote proves it. Rove's column a how-to for the eventual GOP leader on beating Clinton, so of course, his status as an insider is germane: He knows she's hard and brittle. Trust him.

Thing is, his anecdote isn't strictly accurate, if not in fact than in impression. He not only candidly admits this, he seems unapologetic about it. (If you've skipped the column, he talks about how he had inherited her office, the only place in the West Wing with a "full-length vanity mirror." Leaving aside the insertion of the adjective "vanity" into that phrase — a vanity mirror is by definition a small mirror, often with magnification, meant for zeroing in on parts of the face — so its use as a modifier is not only clearly meant to imply that Hillary is vain, it's also factually incorrect. Oh, facts.) Clinton corrects him and lets him know that the mirror was there, too, when she arrived — which, by the way, puts her on equal footing with Rove as an inheritor of the mirror, and not the vain person who put it up. Does that matter? Not a bit. Rove retells that anecdote just the same — "And what did I find but the ONLY mirror in the West Wing — a VANITY mirror!" — because, for him, impressions are more important than truth.

That is the message of the rest of the piece. The language he uses is telling, and chilling — because it's all about selling. "Create a narrative that explains your life and commitments." "Concerns like health care, the cost of college and social mobility will be more important. The Republican nominee needs to be confident in talking about these concerns and credible in laying out how he will address them." "Aggressively campaign for the votes of America's minorities. Go to their communities, listen and learn, demonstrate your engagement...The GOP candidate must ask for the vote in every part of the electorate. He needs to do better among minorities, and be seen as trying." This isn't Rove telling the GOP nominee to care about health care and the burden of college tuition. It's not him telling the GOP nominee to be engaged. He's just explaining what impression needs to exist in order for a successful candidacy to be sold. The GOP nominee should be seen as trying...but actually trying? Eh, that's for suckers (i.e. the reality-based community). Rove's message may be about authenticity — but it's about how to sell it, not how to have it.

(Meanwhile, irony of ironies, he uses as evidence of Hillary's calculation her "accent and laugh," even though Bush slips in and out of a southern accent depending on how much trouble he's in.)

Karl n' Kos both have advice on how to win the election — but one is on style, and the other is on substance. Yikes — winning on substance? The classic Dem trap. Here's Kos, sounding so sweetly certain: "But amnesia only happens in soap operas — and that's why Democrats will win in 2008. As long as Democratic candidates remind voters that the Republican platform and Bush's record are one and the same, victory will be assured." Oh, right, those assured Democrat victories. Who's got amnesia now?

What's great about these columns being set up as counterparts, though, is how clearly this comes out. Even if readers don't catch it, politicos surely will (fine, Howard Wolfson, I won't call you Shirley!) and maybe, just maybe, will adjust their messaging accordingly — or at the least point out how Rove's so-called "narratives" are shaped (the commenters have already started). It will be interesting to see these columns evolve, and to see whether they naturally grow together in response to each other (which would be a further validation of the Netroots, i.e. being acknowledged by someone like Rove). So far though, these two columnists are singing songs we've heard plenty of times before — and, as usual, they are so far apart that they exist strangely in harmony. We'll see if either of them are up for changing the tune.