Karl Rove, the former political adviser to President George W. Bush, has a new book out, called “Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight.” I interviewed him Thursday afternoon, talking to him by phone from Capitol Hill while taking a break from running around trying to figure out if Democrats are going to be able to pass a health care bill.
Rove had already done interviews with several media outlets, and the material in his book had been written about for days. The topics of the Iraq War and his involvement in the Valerie Plame scandal, were particularly well-trodden ground before I talked to the man known as “Bush’s Brain” and “The Architect.”
So I wanted, in my interview, to try and unpack just a little bit of what is underneath Rove’s usually teflon and statistic-spouting (see below) exterior, and understand the man himself. And I wanted to push him on spending by the Bush administration, which is the reason many conservatives grew disillusioned with Bush while he was in office and blame him now for not doing more to solve the nation’s growing problem with unfunded mandates.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
THE DAILY CALLER: So I’m not sure what there is left to talk about. You tell me. What parts of the book do you think have been focused on more than you thought they would, or more than they should have been, and what has been under-discussed so far in all these interviews?
ROVE: The family stuff, the Chapter One and Chapter Two stuff, has been – particularly Chapter One – has been dealt with a lot more than I would have thought. I’m a little surprised at how much attention it’s got. Some of it may be that people have been reading the book from the front to the back and so that’s the, you know, they’re only a quarter of the way or half of the way through and that’s the thing that grabbed their attention, but I’ve been surprised by it.
THE DC: Right.
ROVE: Things that have been – you know, we spent a lot of time on Iraq, a lot of time on Katrina. What’s interesting to me is we haven’t dipped into a lot on the – you know, I have a chapter called, you know, “What Bipartisanship?” in which I recount how antagonistic Democrats were. I’m surprised that hasn’t gotten more attention. The trench battles where Harry Reid calls up and says, “We’ll cut you a deal, you withdraw three names of your appellate nominees, and we’ll try and round up the votes to approve the other two. You pick which. They’re all morally unfit to serve on the bench, but you pick three, and we’ll try to help you on two. To me, it’s just sort of unbelievably atrocious, and you know, it’s gotten a couple mentions. You know, it’s a big book, it’s a big, sprawling book, so when you’re having a seven-minute or a nine-minute interview on television, it’s a little hard to hit anything but the, you know, sort of high points.
THE DC: I have a sort of a big picture question, I’ll ask it in a minute here. First of all what is the “fight” that’s in the title?
ROVE: Well, I became of age when it was apparent Republicans were on the descendancy and liberalism on the ascendancy. You know, Nixon loses to Kennedy and Goldwater gets trounced by [Johnson]. And yet we’ve been in the fight over the, you know, between the sort of, the conservative and the liberal impulse, and our politics has been straining to be free of the New Deal coalition and define a new equilibrium and, you know, I moved to Texas and we had nothing. We had thirteen members of the Texas House and two out of the Texas Senate, so I’ve been involved in a lot of political combat.
THE DC: So the “fight,” though, is for conservative principles.
ROVE: I mean, yeah, I became a Republican after I became a conservative and it is, I think, the fight is at, sort of, it’s a political and philosophical fight.
THE DC: What are the stakes in your mind? What is at stake?
ROVE: Well I don’t want to over-dramatize it, because we have healthy two-party competition and the country survives it, but I do think it’s about the future direction of the country. Do we want more reliance on markets and smaller government and greater emphasis on personal responsibility of the individual, or do we want to rely upon the state and regulation and direction and more of a communal responsibility and less of an individual responsibility?
THE DC: Okay. Like I said I had a big picture question that I thought I’d ask at the end, but I think I’ll-
ROVE: Before you get into that, let me mention one other thing if I could. You asked about the word “fight,” I want to make it clear, the word “courage” in the title refers, if you haven’t read deep into the book, refers to Bush’s courage and the consequences of the decisions that were made over the last, uh… all over his eight years in office.
THE DC: Right, I did read that.
ROVE: All right, good.
THE DC: So, this big picture question, I thought I’d ask you actually now. The back of your book has what I think is a pretty impressive photo. Bush is standing on a tarmac somewhere next to Marine One, you’re talking literally into his ear and your hand is gesturing right behind his ear. First of all, it does nothing to dispel the myth of “Bush’s Brain” that you’ve protested against. Did you have a choice in that photo?
ROVE: This was the the, you know— no. I mean I could have. I wasn’t particularly excited about it, but I leave these things in the hands of book people. But look, I’m not certain it shows “Bush’s Brain,” I mean, the picture that emerges from the book, from even a light reading of the book, is that Bush is a decisive leader who surrounds himself with people who give him candid advice which he either accepts or rejects. In fact, I introduce that notion by talking about, in the chapter on the 2000 election, to demonstrate his way of thinking and operating, by talking about the time that he called me over to tell me to tell him why I was against Dick Cheney being selected as Vice President. Only the most absurd, you know, sort of swamp fever victims still believe that Bush relies upon somebody else’s brain.
THE DC: Okay, and then secondly, that picture, for whatever reason, in my mind raised so many philosophical questions about power. So much of politics ends up being devoted to raw pursuit of power. I wondered if you could reflect in your own life-
ROVE: I have no idea, Jon, how you get from a picture of me talking to Bush on a tarmac with plane noise in the background to a search for raw power. That is one weird jump from Point A to Point Z.
THE DC: Listen, let me explain. I have some policy questions, by the way, I wanted to ask you this big picture question. The reason I’m asking this is because the picture exudes power. So I wanted you to reflect on your experience of power. I’m not saying that the picture is showing you in a raw pursuit of power. I just want to clarify that. I’m curious though, how did you perceive of power when you did not have it, and having had it, how did that change your perception of power?
ROVE: I’m not certain I’m good at answering that question, because in our system of government, power resides primarily with the people who are endowed by voters with the ability to make decisions. And it was rewarding to work in a White House with people who were very sharp, and did their homework, and thought deeply about the questions that were before them, and with whom you could disagree respectfully, and whom you could learn a lot from, and who, like, you operated in an environment where the president put an emphasis on hearing candid advice candidly delivered. But I’m not sure I perceive that as power so much as responsibility, and did I enjoy having a responsibility and working hard, giving it my best shot? You bet. But I also knew that I was going to be there for a limited period of time. I ended up being there longer than I ever would have thought. The average duration of a senior White House aide is about eighteen to twenty months and I stayed there for seven years, and it was rewarding. But I’m not sure I ever thought about it consciously in terms of, “This is all about power, and I enjoy having it.”
THE DC: Did you— what was it you feel has driven you, though, to get to where you got?
ROVE: Well, as I say in the book, I’ve always been fascinated with politics and policy, and I’ve enjoyed participating in the democratic life of our country, which is what politics is all about, and I’ve also enjoyed having an impact on the policy direction of our country or of my state. It’s nice to be able to advocate something you believe in and to be able to move public policy in the direction of those concerns.
THE DC: All right, I want to ask you about the current president. You told Mike Allen that Hillary Clinton is an able person, and you talked about if she would have been the president, the exact quote was, you “would sleep safe at night.” Was that in any way a reference to Obama, do you think that he’s capable of doing the job that he’s got?
ROVE: During the campaign of 2008, the primaries, I thought she had a greater ability to give confidence to the American people that she was qualified by experience and temperament to be president. In fact, I’ve remarked many times about the fact – I may be slightly off on the numbers here – the Washington Post/ABC poll in, like, March of 2008, asked, “Do you think that Barack Obama is qualified by experience to be president?” And I think the number is 46% say no. And in October, shortly before the election, they asked the question again, and 42% say no. That’s the highest number for any major-party candidate that late in the game in the history of polling, and I think the next-nearest number is in the 30s, high 30s, for Michael Dukakis in 1988. So I think the American people, many people voted for him concerned about whether or not he had the experience and qualifications to do the job, but finding him an aspirational candidate rather than somebody of proven background.
THE DC: So do you think their concerns were legitimate and have been founded?
ROVE: I think he’s had a very rocky first year because he has not done in office what he said he would do in the campaign. And the White House has been, you know, he has been aloof and disengaged in the process of developing policy, he’s outsourced far too much to the leadership of Congress to develop, and he’s failed to demand of them what he promised he would do, which is to not be red states, blue states, but to be united states. Whether that’s inexperience or whether he didn’t mean those things in the campaign, I guess everybody gets to make their own judgment over time. I’m not prepared to say which it is yet, but I do think there has been a deep disconnect what he said he would do in the campaign and what he’s doing as president, and in part it’s probably both: that he adopted a style for the campaign that he didn’t really intend to follow once he got into office, and that he has deliberately followed a policy of being disengaged and aloof and allowing too much to be done by Congress because that’s the style that he’s comfortable with.
THE DC: You also told Mike Allen that Washington creates myths for its own existence and that you were like Grendel in Beowulf, which I found funny. Obama talks all the time about how much he doesn’t like Washington, he said yesterday it was harsh and unforgiving.
ROVE: Well, look, I’m sympathetic to him being under fire, but President Obama, as I’ve been reminded recently, during the campaign he kept saying that he was going to end “Karl Rove’s politics.” In his book he accused me of saying, “We are a Christian nation.” He accused me of being like a 60’s radical. This week somebody dug up a piece of tape in which he says in 2006, “Karl Rove doesn’t believe in government.” So I appreciate President Obama being concerned about what he would see as a harsh environment, he ought to consider what he has done to add to it by so freely distorting what people believe and where they are.
THE DC: I just want to clarify though that you guys do agree on something that you both don’t like Washington.
ROVE: Well look, I do like Washington, I didn’t say I didn’t like Washington, I said Washington creates myths for total amusement. Where as I do like Washington, I enjoy the museums, I enjoy the people, I enjoy our neighborhood, I obviously like the work that I do in Washington, I feel privileged to be able to come in and out of Washington, spent some time in Texas and some time in Washington. But when you’re president of the United States you better have a thick skin because the town is tough, no doubt about it.
THE DC: All right, I was just trying to build a bridge there but we’ll find it another time. All right, Bush legacy, you said that Iraq may turn out to be a huge legacy booster for Bush, do you think that while this issue may turn out to be a positive, that spending may end up being a negative on his account: mainly the two unfunded tax cuts and the unfunded drug entitlement? I want to throw some numbers at you – spending as a percentage of GDP went from 18.4% of the economy to 22.8% which is a 4.4% increase.
ROVE: Guess what – discretionary domestic non-security spending which was growing at 16% when Bush came into office in the last budget of Bill Clinton, and I talk about this in the book, declined, and the exact numbers are in the book, to 6% growth the next year, and 4% the next year and 3% growth the third year and 2% growth the year after that and essentially flat lined less than inflation for the last four years. For example, FY O8, the discretionary domestic non security budget of the united states was 391, and in FY ‘09 it was 393. Of course the democrats bumped it up with the omnibus, a 9.7% increase midway through the year when Obama gets elected. My point is that yeah, I’ll acknowledge that we were spending more on the military and I’ll acknowledge we’re spending more on homeland security and border security, but principally what you’re seeing there is a thing that Bush attempted to deal with which was the growing social security and Medicare demands on the budget as the boomers retire. And the deficits under Bush ran about 3% of GDP, that’s higher than the post-war average and about the outer limits of what economists feel is useful, but Bush was facing a recession when he came in, the 9/11 attacks, and a war. And yet he still was able to provide circumstances in which there was 52 months of consecutive job growth, the longest period in the history of America, and where there was an increase in productivity above the ‘70’s, ‘80’s, and ‘90’s, and where the economy grew from $9.7 trillion a year before he took office to $14.2 trillion his last year in office. That’s $4.2 trillion in growth of the size of the American economy. It’s larger than entire Japanese economy. So, Bush was a— ratcheted down discretionary domestic spending—.
THE DC: I have numbers that show that non-defense discretionary went up 8.5% in his first term, which is higher than either of Clinton’s terms.
ROVE: No. No, I’ll tell you what that does. That includes, basically Clinton’s last budget and makes Bush responsible for the spending binge pushed through a Republican Congress by a Democrat president. And take a look in the book. I’ve got the numbers. I worked them very carefully through with Steve McMillan, and I’ve got the right numbers in the book. Now, you can make the argument that Bush did have an unfunded tax cut. I don’t think we ought to be paying for tax cuts. I don’t think we ought to say it’s a zero sum game: if you want to cut taxes you got to raise the revenue somewhere else. I just don’t believe that. There are times particularly when we have such a huge surplus, ostensibly, or when you have a need to jumpstart the economy, as we did on ’01, that you don’t sit there and say, ‘Oh yeah we are going to pay for the tax cuts.’ The second thing is that you could make the argument that Bush had an unfunded liability, the unfunded entitlement that he created in the form of the Medicare prescription drug benefits, and I think that’s a reasonable argument to make. But I would remind you that you ought to take a look at it in terms of what we faced when we were fighting over the Medicare prescription drug benefit. We had both parties in 2000 say we need to modernize Medicare with a prescription drug benefit – this was something Bush campaigned on. Second of all, we had two competing plans, the Democrat plan, scored by CBO at $800 billion, was a government run form formula. The government said, decided what drugs you would get, and what the price would be. The Republicans said we want a market-oriented benefit that’s going to be delivered by private providers who set the formula and set the prices. It was scored by CBO at $450 billion. We pushed through the Republican benefit. It wasn’t a question of– neither one of them, incidentally, was, quote, paid for. Democrats didn’t pay for theirs, we didn’t pay for ours. The choice was do you want the really big one run by the government, or do you want something with market forces that include things like health saving accounts? We pushed through the Republican one. Three bad things then happened: more people signed up, more people signed up quicker, and everybody used it more than was anticipated by the actuaries, the so called utilization ring. And guess what happened? What happened was, that the program is going to come in one third less than the CBO projection for the first ten years. And why? Because it’s market forces that are delivering the benefit, not a government mandate, not a government run, not a government dictated, not a government price setting mechanism. It’s delivered by market forces.
THE DC: All right, let me move on real quick. Why is the GOP in such bad shape politically? Why are there no leaders of the party? Is the Democratic majority Congress part of the Bush administration’s legacy?
ROVE: No, I think it is a natural result of– look, our losses in the 2006 election, we lost one more Senate seat then White House parties normally lose in second term mid-terms, and one more seat in the House then parties normally lose in the second term mid-term. We lost the Senate by 6,200 votes in Montana. We lost the House, if you take the top 14 or 15 races – I’ve got the specific numbers in the book – we lost it by 27,000 votes out of 81 million cast. So we lost them by a narrow margin after picking up seats in 2002, only the second time in the history of America that that had happened. And after picking up seats in the House and Senate in 2004, which again has not happened in American politics. So the losses are normal. But did we have a lousy presidential campaign in 2008? A very worthy man, but not a particularly effective campaign. And we had two years to watch the Democrats beat up on Bush and the Republicans didn’t defend him or themselves. So look, I recognize that the party is looking to the future and that’s what it ought to do, but we ought to be careful as we do so that we don’t have premature expectations of where we ought to be. This is not a time, after losing the White House, that one leader has emerged, that one leader should emerge. We have the utility of diversity of opinions. And it’s great that we’ve got different voices out there. I thought the February 25th Blair House meeting was spectacular, in that we had so many different voices, from Ryan to Barrosso, to Colburn to Alexander, whom people didn’t normally see and they got a sense of how good we have it in, how many good members of Congress we have and how many good leaders of the party we have. I have arrived at my location so you have one more question.
THE DC: How about three ‘yes’ or ‘no’s?
ROVE: Oh I am not committing to give you ‘yes’ or ‘no’s.
THE DC: Ok, well they’ll be that quick. Have you talked to General David Petraeus or anyone around him about a political future?
THE DC: Are you talking or working regularly with Tea Party folks on what they’re doing.
ROVE: I’m talking to Tea Party people all the time.
THE DC: Lastly, you’ve had some personal impact from your pursuit and your service to government. Was it worth it?
ROVE: It was a great experience and my family and I will be forever grateful that we had the experience that we had in Washington.
THE DC: Ok. Favorite founding father?
ROVE: You know what, it’s hard to answer that question because I love Washington, I love Jefferson, I love Hamilton, I love Adams. I mean there are is something to be found in almost every one of them that is admirable. From Robert Morris who died in poverty. One of my favorites that is not well known is Caesar Rodney. He’s got to be the ugliest founder, and he’s got cancer of the face, and he mounts a horse and rides a carriage in order to break the tide and casts Delaware’s vote in favor of the Declaration of independence. So I mean it’s hard to pick one of those incredibly amazing people. Alexander Hamilton, I mean it’s a remarkable group.
THE DC: I am surprised you said you like Jefferson actually.
ROVE: I’m a huge Jefferson fan, I must admit I’ve changed, my attitudes about him have changed over time because while I love his small government view, his small government view was so closely tied to agrarianism and I must admit the idea of an agrarian America, rather than the robust source of innovation and competition is not my ideal.
THE DC: Ok, that’s a good one to end it on. Thanks Karl.
ROVE: Thanks, bye.
Transcription by Elizabeth Simson, Monique Hamm and Joseph Tauke.