Judged strictly as strategy, and not, say, for its morality, Karl Rove's blast at Hillary Clinton on Tuesday demonstrated how the game of political trickery manifests itself in the Internet age. Allegation reported, allegation denied, outrage from the victimized party, all bouncing across the Web, the initial accusation repeated each and every time -- a whisper campaign given full baying voice.
The Republican strategist's questioning of Clinton's health was a joint assault on the minds of voters and the heart of the would-be White House contender, and it probably worked, at least minimally, by injecting into the conversation something no one had been talking about, and spreading a negative assertion without any proof.
The New York Post reported Monday night that Rove, in remarks to an assembled crowd last week, had repeatedly suggested that Clinton had suffered from a "traumatic brain injury" when she fell and suffered a concussion and blood clot in late 2012.
Or, as the Post headline succinctly put it: "Karl Rove: Hillary may have brain damage."
"We need to know what's up with that," Rove, who gained fame with the election of his client George W. Bush, was said to have told his audience. Rove based his diagnosis on special glasses Clinton wore after her concussion to lessen double vision — fallout of the concussion itself and one that was disclosed by Clinton. (He also told them Clinton had been hospitalized for 30 days, which was not true.)
By Tuesday morning, as Clinton aides pointed at her marathon schedule to insist she was operating at full strength, Rove was cleaning up around the edges. He said that he had never used the words "brain damage," yet he reasserted the bulk of his claim.
"This was a serious deal. She basically was out of action," Rove told Fox News, which beneath a picture of Clinton ran the headline "Health a 2016 hurdle?"
"She spends over a month fighting this," Rove said. " And they're not particularly forthcoming."
Barring the release of audio, it is impossible to determine whether Rove uttered the words "brain damage," but it's also beside the point. The point was that through his words prospective 2016 voters were reminded of Clinton's 2012 health issues and, by extension, a host of loosely related things, including her age (69 were she to be elected in November 2016) and her family's past resistance to transparancy.
And Clinton was reminded that, if she runs, her opponents will be merciless and not always bound by reality.
Rove is certainly not the first to employ the strategy. In 1988, Ronald Reagan, from a White House podium no less, gave credence to rumors fanned by conservatives that Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis had undergone psychiatric treatment. Asked if Dukakis should release medical records, Reagan replied, "Look, I'm not going to pick on an invalid."
He later said he was "just trying to be funny" but the damage was done. Fresh off a post-convention surge, the Dukakis campaign was forced off its game and into days of discussion of his medical records and personal history.
More recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada senator, demonstrated a Rovian strategic bent when -- without proof -- he repeatedly asserted during the last presidential campaign that Republican nominee Mitt Romney had not paid income taxes.
"The other day, I said that I'd been told by a very credible source that Mitt Romney hadn't paid taxes for 10 years," Reid wrote in an email to supporters in August 2012. "Gov. Romney got upset. But, you know what? I'm not backing down. I'm not backing down because, when you run for president, you should be an open book. I'm not backing down because Mitt Romney is hiding something -- and the American people deserve to know what it is."
As with Rove's assertion about Clinton, it had no basis in fact but hit on several levels, casting Romney as the rich guy ditching out on civic responsibilities, and one who'd hide it to boot.
Romney's denials didn't stem the storm. Although he initially refused to release tax returns, he insisted that he'd always paid a federal tax rate of at least 13%. When that statement also didn't work, Romney was essentially forced to release his 2011 tax return, giving Democrats even more opportunities to publicly dissect his sizable income.
Reid declined to disclose his source, ascribing the information to someone who had invested with Romney's firm. The book "Double Down," a recap of the 2012 campaign, blamed Utah businessman Jon M. Huntsman Sr., a past Romney nemesis whose namesake son briefly sought the presidency in 2012. Huntsman denied it.
Politics has never been driven by moral virtue, of course; its operatives spin and cut corners and bully and threaten and lie outright, to cite only some sins. But with the world connected electronically in a way that would have drawn gapes even a generation ago, the accusations can explode with a vehemence that is uncontainable.