WASHINGTON -- Somewhere in my files I have a snapshot of a skinny young guy named Karl Rove running for president of the College Republicans. The year is 1972. He is standing at a podium on an empty lawn of a college somewhere, and there is exactly one person in the audience: a bored coed stretched out on the grass.
She does not seem to be listening, but in the end it didn't matter that Rove had no magnetism. He had Lee Atwater as his Southern campaign manager, and Rove later got help from a big shot named George H. W. Bush. Rove beat the right-wingers for the post, which earned him the privilege of being able to perform dirty tricks for Richard's Nixon's legendarily dirty 1972 presidential campaign.
Back then, and even now, 41 years later, Rove was not a radical or what they called a "movement" conservative. He was a geeky outsider who longed for the power and money and connections that he thought would be available to him in politics in general and as a Nixon acolyte in particular. Nixon hated the country clubbers, but for social not philosophical reasons, and he drew to his side outsider operatives such as Rove with a lust for power.
Rove gained clout in Texas politics long ago -- and boosted the fortunes of George W. Bush -- by crushing the hard-line conservatives in the state. These were ideologues that Rove and the Bushes rightly viewed as deadly to the family's chances of winning the presidency.
After Rove outmaneuvered the proto-Tea Party types in Texas, he was free to define Bush conservatism in a "mainstream" way, as "compassionate" on issues such as health care and education and open-minded about Hispanics remaking the Lone Star State.
Well, what goes around comes around, and with the Bushes temporarily quiescent and the Tea Party in control of the U.S. House -- and much of the GOP grassroots -- Rove is fighting a rear-guard action in a far more difficult position than a generation ago.
Tea Partiers rightly ask what Rove and his rich-as-Croesus American Crossroads super PAC have gotten for conservatives or even the GOP. Rove is a master tactician, but not necessarily a great judge of political horseflesh. His taste tends to run to rich guys who can pay him a lot -- which worked out well only in the case of W., and then only by skin of Justice Antonin Scalia's ("get over it") teeth.
Now come the likes of senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky to challenge him: smart, angry and anti-establishment conservatives who loath the country club types and who want to remake the Republican Party in their own uncompromisingly isolationist, anti-governmental, anti-social-welfare and anti-tax image.
Deep-dyed conservatives have a right to ask the Roves of the world what the establishment GOPers have done to erase the debt, limit the reach of the federal government or enhance a libertarian view of the world. The answer, to the Rand Pauls of the world, is simple: nothing.
The party of Paul, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida and many others is a throwback to the nativism and principled know-nothing-ism of conservatives whom the likes of William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan purged from the party long ago, making it safe for the Roves of the world to advance.
It took the likes of Buckley and Reagan two decades to rid the GOP and the mainstream conservative movement of the John Birchers, ultra-isolationists and flat-out segregationists and to create a party and a platform that would win a national election.
Now leaders and potential leaders such as Cruz (a rising force to be reckoned with) and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida need to perform the same cleansing task -- and will probably have to take on the Paulites (who are paranoid conspiracy theorists at heart) to do it.
The war for the soul of the Republican Party is real, deep and reminiscent of that earlier conflict. For the GOP it ended well: they harnessed the energy at the grassroots to take over Washington.
This equally bitter GOP civil war may end in the party's revival, too. But it won't be Rove, or one of his clients, who is able to end it.