Day after day last week, outgoing White House political strategist Karl Rove delivered slashing attacks on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner. Her healthcare record was “spotty and poor,” he declared. Her candidacy was “fatally flawed,” he said. And no one with her negative poll numbers, he stated, “has ever won the presidency.”
Why did Rove, who often stays in the background, step forward to deliver such public attacks -- especially when the Democrats haven’t begun to choose their presidential candidate for 2008 and when the general election is more than a year away?
The answer might seem obvious: Rove saw Clinton as a formidable opponent and wanted to get his licks in early.
For high-level campaign professionals like Rove, however, that kind of thinking may be too simple.
The decision to focus on the New York senator to the exclusion of other potentially formidable Democratic standard-bearers such as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois offered a rare glimpse into a world where things are not always what they seem -- the world of modern-day electioneering, whose denizens often prefer going from A to B by way of Z.
In this case, Rove’s weeklong broadside against Clinton -- which he is expected to repeat in multiple appearances on television talk shows today -- looks suspiciously like an exercise in reverse psychology that his team employed three years ago when it was preparing for President Bush’s reelection bid.
The ploy was described by Rove lieutenant Matthew Dowd during a postmortem conference on the 2004 election at Harvard University the month after Bush defeated Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
In the run-up to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when it was not yet clear who Bush’s opponent would be that November, Rove and his aides had begun to fear that their most dangerous foe would be then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
With his Southern base, charismatic style and populist message, Edwards, they believed, could be a real threat to Bush’s reelection.
But instead of attacking Edwards, Rove’s team opened fire at Kerry.
Their thinking went like this, Dowd explained: Democrats, in a knee-jerk reaction to GOP attacks, would rally around Kerry, whom Rove considered a comparatively weak opponent, and make him the party’s nominee. Thus Bush would be spared from confronting Edwards, the candidate Republican strategists actually feared most.
Unlike Kerry, who had been in public service for decades, Edwards was a political newcomer and lacked a long record that could be attacked. And, unlike former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who had been the front-runner but whose campaign was collapsing in Iowa, Edwards couldn’t easily be painted as “nutty.”
If that sounds implausibly convoluted, consider Dowd’s own words:
“Whomever we attacked was going to be emboldened in Democratic primary voters’ minds.
“So we started attacking John Kerry a lot in the end of January because we were very worried about John Edwards,” Dowd said. “And we knew that if we focused on John Kerry, Democratic primary voters would sort of coalesce” around Kerry.
“It wasn’t like we could tag [eliminate] somebody. Whomever we attacked was going to be helped,” he said.
Nicolle Wallace, the 2004 Bush campaign communications director, recalled at the Harvard conference that the campaign “refused” to even respond to Edwards’ attacks on Bush, not wanting to make him seem like a threat.
Edwards was selected as Kerry’s running mate and now is vying with Clinton and Obama for their party’s 2008 nomination.
Is Rove playing a similar game against Clinton? Is he trying to stampede Democrats into nominating her, having concluded that Obama, Edwards or someone else would pose a stiffer challenge to the Republican nominee?
The White House declined to make Rove available to comment for this article. But political strategists said Rove’s visibility suggested he had no intention of fading from the game in 2008.
“I haven’t known Karl to do many things accidentally or spontaneously,” said Dowd, who has broken ties with Bush, Rove and others and has expressed disappointment in the president’s leadership and political tactics.
“He may be right, but I’m not convinced,” Dowd said of Rove’s apparent strategy. Clinton is “smart, able. She’s got very smart people around her, and she knows how to be disciplined,” he said.
Bob Shrum, the top strategist for Kerry’s 2004 campaign, said that “too little attention has been paid to what Rove is doing” and that he was clearly “not just casually chatting because he’s retiring.”
But Shrum said Rove was forging a dangerous strategy if he was banking on an easy general-election win over the former first lady. He recalled that many Democrats in 1979 relished the thought of taking on Ronald Reagan the following year.
“If they’re trying some sort of political jujitsu, then they might wind up punching themselves in the face,” Shrum said.
One analyst, theatlantic.com blogger Marc Ambinder, reported that Rove, having decided that Clinton will win the nomination, is trying to push Republicans to start attacking her because she has had success in remaking her image.
Clinton appeared to welcome the attacks from Rove, widely disliked among Democrats, and her campaign traded blows with the White House last week. A new Clinton television ad in Iowa, released as Rove made his comments, accused Bush of ignoring the needs of working families and soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A White House spokeswoman immediately called the claims “outrageous,” “absurd” and “unconscionable” -- and the Clinton campaign happily touted the exchange as proof that the GOP was afraid of her.
Clinton aides went a step further, drawing parallels between Rove’s remarks and Obama’s comments in a Washington Post interview in which the Illinois senator said he could unite the country more effectively than Clinton.
“Throughout this campaign, Sen. Clinton has successfully explained why she is the candidate with the strength and experience to make change happen, so it’s no surprise that the national Republicans are doing what they can to help the other candidates,” said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer.
“Considering that the Rove rhetoric closely mirrors what some Democratic candidates are saying, it’s clear that the Republicans think she will win in 2008.”
Conservative activist Grover Norquist said that he doubted conservatives were trying to meddle in the Democratic primaries and that nobody on his side thinks that party’s base would pay attention to Rove.
But he then adopted another device favored by political professionals, taking a position that could be read as straightforward or as carefully calculated.
“I want to run against Hillary Clinton because I think she’s the easiest person to beat,” Norquist said. “But she’s by no means a pushover.”
The next debate
The Democratic presidential candidates will participate in a forum at Drake University in Des Moines this morning. The forum will be broadcast as a special edition of ABC-TV’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” at 8 a.m.