campaign desk

Wizard of Odds

Karl Rove’s Fox News debut
February 6, 2008

You know that climactic scene in The Wizard of Oz, when Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard—subject of speculation, admiration, and intrigue—is just a man…and kind of a dorky, dull man, at that?

I couldn’t help but think of that scene—repeatedly—last night as I watched Karl Rove’s punditorial debut on the Fox News Channel. While there was a beamed-to-the-mothership aspect of inevitability to the FNC Superfriend’s solidifying of his status with the network (as Gawker wryly put it, “what an exciting and unexpected move”), it was also disconcerting, this on-air revelation of The Man Behind the Curtain. While we’d seen Rove before, of course, on the Sunday show circuit and elsewhere, it was always as Rove-the-Strategist, Rove-the-Spinner. Last night, he was still those things…but he was also just Rove-the-Guy.

And Machiavelli is pretty dull. “Boring, of course,” scoffed Wonkette’s Ken Layne of Rove’s FNC showing. “Nothing to see here except forehead,” wrote Bob Cesca, live-blogging the Super Tuesday returns on the Huffington Post, of the copiously-craniumed strategist.

Fair enough. Rove, as we already knew, isn’t a terribly dynamic guy, and no pancake makeup or lime-green tie, it seems, can change that. But last night was about news and analysis, after all, not whiz-bam entertainment. And in terms of providing a knowledgeable perspective on Super Tuesday’s election returns, Rove was actually pretty good. Largely because—as Fox anchors Brit Hume and Chris Wallace ensured through their questions to him—the erstwhile “Bush’s Brain” focused his punditry on what he knows best: strategy. To wit, here’s Rove’s First Fox Moment:

WALLACE: In your new job, let me put you immediately in your old job, as a political strategist. Imagine for a moment you’re McCain’s strategist, you’re looking at victories tonight so far in Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey…what would you be telling the boss?

ROVE: Well, this is a good start to the evening. Part of McCain’s strategy was to go after the winner-take-all states. And he has won two of the biggest tonight in New Jersey and Connecticut. So he starts out with seventy-nine delegates out of the night of those two states. And Illinois is an interesting state because you have to vote for individual delegates who can declare their preference, and they did a good job of getting a lot of party leaders…you vote twice, you vote in a presidential beauty contest, and you vote for the delegate. And generally they tend to match up, because people understand who the delegates are.

WALLACE: And let me move you over to the Romney camp. You’re advising Mitt Romney. At his point all you’ve got is a victory in Massachusetts. What would you be telling him?

ROVE: Well, his strategy has been to do three things: first, to win his home states, Massachusetts and Utah, which gives him about seventy-six votes tonight if he wins those both, then to win the caucus states, and there are about 173 delegates up in those caucus states, though some of those caucuses take a long time—they start tonight, but they don’t end for weeks to come. And then the big states that he was going to go after were Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia and California. We won’t know about the biggest one, California, until the end of the night, which is where he put most of his effort. He—

WALLACE: So he’s got an incomplete at this point.

ROVE: He’s got an incomplete.

WALLACE: Alright. And what about Huckabee, who, at least as we’re reporting it, is showing surprising strength in the South?

ROVE: Well, Huckabee’s strategy was a sort of Bible Belt/Sun Belt strategy. And it’s working so far. He went for Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, so far he’s taken West Virginia with eighteen votes. He’s taken Alabama with 45 total delegates, though he doesn’t – it’s -Alabama has very strange rules, so it’s unlikely that he’s going to take more than maybe twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty out of those forty-five delegates.

WALLACE: I want to put you back for a moment in the McCain camp. He did something surprising this weekend. He spent it in Massachusetts, watched the Super Bowl there, was hoping for a knockout blow. He may pick up delegates ‘cause it’s not winner-take-all…Was that a mistake?

ROVE: Yeah, that was a big mistake, because, look, it’s a proportional state, so, you know, if he gets a third of the vote, he gets thirteen out of the forty delegates. If he got 40 percent of the vote, he would have gotten sixteen or seventeen. Georgia is a very important state. It gives a big block of votes – 30 delegates votes to the winner on a state-wide, winner-take-all basis. If I were him, I wouldn’t have been watching that game in Boston. I would have been somewhere in a military community or in suburban Atlanta doing everything that I could to inch myself up into first place and get that big block of votes that comes from there. You get thirty delegate votes in Georgia on a statewide basis…Massachusetts has forty total.

WALLACE: That’s the kind of information we’re going to be getting from Karl Rove all night long, Brit.

There’s much more in this vein; it’s worth watching yesterday’s Wallace/Rove exchanges. It’s also worth noting that Rove wasn’t limited to discussion of GOP returns; after the polls closed in Georgia last night, Rove talked about the large number of white voters who had come out for Obama. “Georgia, when it comes to Democrats, is not that different from other states,” Rove declared. “If white Democrats vote for Obama in Georgia, then white voters across America may be voting for Obama.”

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In making such declarations, noted New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley, Rove was “perhaps the least circumspect commentator” of TV’s Super Tuesday coverage—no small designation, given last night’s punditpalooza. The Plank’s Bradford Plumer might have put it best: when it comes to the GOP, anyway, Rove “presumably has a sense for where the base’s erogenous zones are.” Because of that, Plumer continued, “I’d put a fair bit of weight on his judgment.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.