Thanks to President Obama's weak debate performance, Karl Rove may once again be the man who will make the difference in the race for the White House.
Rove, who played such a decisive role in the 2000 and 2004 elections, does not have the close personal relationship with Mitt Romney that he had with George W. Bush, and, perhaps as a result, the Romney operation, with Rove surrogates and protégés occupying high positions in the campaign, was initially riddled with infighting and missteps.
Nevertheless, Rove's web of influence and his relationships with wealthy benefactors have enabled him to play a commanding under-the-radar role as king of the super PACs and de facto party boss of the Republican Party. Most recently, his imprint can be seen on operations painting Obama as a failed, weak, Jimmy Carter-like president, on assertions that Obama cooked the books to come up rosy job numbers, and in voter ID campaigns that may suppress a significant, Democratic-leaning portion of the electorate.
Consider Boss Rove's role in last week's assault by Mitt Romney over the Obama administration's Middle East policy, particularly its handling of Libya. In fact, the offensive began nearly two weeks earlier, on September 26, on Fox News, when Rove called Obama's reaction to what happened in Libya "inexplicable" and added that Obama is "more intent on campaigning than meeting his responsibilities as commander-in-chief." He went on to warn that Obama's policies in Libya endangered the U.S. with regard to Iran. "I am astonished," Rove said. "We are projecting weakness when we need to be projecting strength."
A few days later, Rove's comments were followed by an onslaught of new ads released by American Crossroads, the super PAC he co-founded, juxtaposing images of the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, with Obama appearances on shows like "The View" and "Late Night With David Letterman." "President Obama needs to learn, being president isn't just about being on TV and protecting your job. It's about leadership," the video said.
This was just the beginning of what GOP operatives referred to as the Rove-approved "Jimmy Carter Strategy" intended to portray Obama as a helpless, Jimmy Carter-like president and to equate the tragedy in Libya with Carter's failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980.
Consider also what happened last week after President Obama got a much-needed injection of positive news thanks to auspicious job numbers from the Labor Department. As soon as the numbers were released on October 5, Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, via Twitter, instantly poured cold water on the announcement. "Unbelievable jobs numbers," he tweeted. "... these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers."
What did Rove have to do with this? The answer can be traced back more than thirteen years to June, 1999, just after George W. Bush declared his candidacy, when, according to an online article by David Podvin and Carolyn Kay, Welch, who was then Chairman and CEO of General Electric, the parent company of NBC, was contacted by Rove who reportedly told him that a Bush administration would introduce sweeping deregulatory measures in the broadcast industry that would create untold additional profits for GE.
Soon, according to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), come election time, November 7, 2000, Welch played a key role in getting NBC to call Florida, and with it, the national election, prematurely for George W. Bush.
When it comes to the current election cycle, Welch, in an appearance on Chris Matthews' MSNBC show, Hardball, admitted that he had could not back up his tweet suggesting the Obama administration had falsified the job numbers. "I have no evidence to prove that, I just raised the question," he said. But by then, his tweet had gone out to 1.3 million followers on Twitter, and his charges had been repeated by Rush Limbaugh and dozens of other outlets reaching tens of millions of people.
Finally, as I have reported earlier, for years Rove has promoted a state-by-state campaign to require voter identification to stamp out voter fraud. Because the phenomenon that happens to be virtually nonexistent, Democrats sometimes refer to it as Jim Crow 2.0 and Juan Crow, asserting that it is really a voter suppression campaign designed to inhibit voting by African-Americans, Latinos, the elderly, college students, the disabled, and the homeless--all of whom happen to lean Democratic.
In 2004, the co-chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio was Ken Blackwell, a Rove lieutenant who also, as Ohio Secretary of State, oversaw voting operations in his state. This time, the Ohio Secretary of State is another Republican, Jon Husted, who is a veteran of that 2004 campaign with Rove. He too has made a concerted effort to limit turnout. He has issued a directive that forbids boards of elections from notifying voters about mistakes in absentee ballots. Apparently aware that Democratic voters are far more likely to take advantage of early voting, he has also tried to restrict voting in the final three days before the election. Judges from both a U.S. District Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled against Husted, and upheld early voting during those days.
But on October 9, Husted announced that he would appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Ultimately, such decisions may well play a key role in determining the outcome of the election.
Vanity Fair contributing editor Craig Unger is the author of Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power, and the New York Times bestseller, House of Bush, House of Saud. Read more at www.bossrove.com.