Karl Rove Is Right

The Republican Party would be wise to weed out pure ideologues who put the party's electoral success in jeopardy.

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Karl Rove talks in his mobile phone as he walks across the floor before the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.
Karl Rove talks in his mobile phone as he walks across the floor before the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.

When I worked on the Hill we called it the circular firing squad. It was the tendency of some Democrats to go flying off in every direction at the worst possible moment, setting aside larger strategic goals to pursue individual ideological ones. It was incredibly frustrating, but if the American public wanted to keep sending Dennis Kucinich to the Hill there was little you could do about it.

Now it's congressional Republicans who can't seem to pull it together. While the old line searches for compromise, the new more radical fringe insists on ideological purity. And the results have been predictably ugly for the GOP.

That's what makes Karl Rove's plan to start picking off Republican candidates before they can reach the Hill so audacious. He looked at the mess Republicans have gotten themselves into and said: Enough is enough. I'm taking matters into my own hands.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

The far right is enraged. Some on the left can barely contain their glee. And I think they're both wrong. Here's why:

First, it's undeniable that had there been a mechanism in place to take out the Todd Akins and Richard Mourdocks before they won their primaries, Republicans would have been in a stronger general election position. If you're a far right conservative you may not like hearing that. It may feel like a repudiation of what you believe. But it's true. The prospect of being more competitive in more elections is the short-term benefit of Rove's plan, if he executes it well. But take the long view and you see something else: a caucus protection plan.

Let's assume, as the likes of Erick Erickson and L. Brent Bozell apparently have, that the lion's share of candidates targeted for extinction by Rove will hail from the party's hard right. That's a reasonable assumption: They're the folks who harbor the most disqualifying views and seem least able to censor themselves.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is the GOP's Problem in its Strategies or its Policies?]

So if Rove is successful in his efforts, what happens over time? Fewer Tea Party candidates make general elections and the radicals are winnowed out of the Republican caucus. In their place appear more traditional Republicans who, in many respects, are no less conservative than their more intemperate brethren, but are better equipped to set aside their personal beliefs in the interest of actual legislative victories. That would be a God-send for someone like House Speaker John Boehner. And it would make for a more reliable return on investment for the donors who bankroll Republican campaigns (the same folks, its worth pointing out, who are funding Rove's effort.)

And at the end of the day, the far right would benefit too. No, they might not get as many heaping helpings of the red meat they so love. And yes, the delicious prospect of one of their heroes actually taking a jackhammer to the Capitol might be diminished. But a coordinated caucus with a coherent plan of attack would meaningfully improve the prospects of their campaign to shrink the federal government.

Now, based on his last foray into electoral politics you might wonder whether Rove is the right guy to take on this task. His various Crossroads endeavors have been unmitigated flops. His plan is sufficiently divisive that it could well spark an intraparty war. And then there's the little matter of picking the right candidates to attack and/or back. In other words, Rove's plan may work or it may not.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

But here's what I know: In 2000, Ralph Nader famously ran for president. He was, in essence, the Tea Party of the left—a liberal disaffected with the establishment and determined to chart a more leftward course. As everyone knows, among his other "accomplishments" during the campaign was winning close to 100,000 votes in Florida, costing Al Gore the state and the election, and putting George W. Bush in the White House.

It is perhaps the most egregious example of what can happen when you place ideological purity over practical electoral concerns. And it's the kind of disaster Karl Rove seems intent on making sure Republicans do not repeat.

That's the kind of thing conservatives should applaud and that folks on my side of the ideological divide should be wary of. And, I have to admit, it makes me wonder: where was our Karl Rove when we needed him?

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