Though the final numbers are still rolling in, it’s now clear that President Obama has been reelected. This is a big victory for Obama, but it is also a win for former George Bush strategist Karl Rove. At first glance, this would appear to be a bizarre statement. After all, Rove’s Crossroads GPS superPAC spent over $100 million to elect Republicans and he predicted a Romney victory. But the truth is, Rove’s political legacy will live on, because it has now been embraced by the man whose political rise was built around rejecting it.
As he faced reelection in 2004, President Bush was a vulnerable incumbent. But Rove devised a strategy based on destroying his opponent, John Kerry, and rallying the base around wedge issues, such as Bush’s advocacy of a federal marriage amendment. Liberals howled about the swift boat tactics and about how Rove divided the country. And because Bush’s Electoral College victory did not translate into an ideological victory, Republicans soon had a reversal of fortune when Democrats overtook Congress in 2006.
When he announced his run for the presidency in 2007, Obama was a freshman Senator without a record. There were plenty of other more experienced Democrats running, who held the same basic positions on issues. Obama rose above them not because of his race, but because of his ability to inspire millions by offering a new kind of politics. In his kind of politics, cynicism was replaced with hope. People could disagree without being disagreeable. The country wasn’t carved up into red states and blue states. And the goal wasn’t to win 50 percent plus-one victories, but to build consensus. Though even in 2008, this image was already a bit of a fairy tale, as demonstrated by such decisions as Obama abandoning the public campaign financing system, when he won by a landslide, it was a repudiation of Rove-style politics.
As he faced a tough reelection fight with a struggling economy and a disillusioned electorate, however, this same strategy wouldn’t work a second time. So instead, he used the Rove playbook. Obama set out to destroy his opponent, attacking Mitt Romney’s laudable private sector career and allowing his allies to suggest Romney was a felon and was responsible for a man’s wife dying of cancer. Swift-boating was replaced with Swift-Baining. And then there were the wedge issues. Obama suddenly declared he supported gay marriage, with no tangible change in policy, to woo disillusioned young voters. He created a “War on Women” narrative, equating Republican opposition to forcing religious institutions to purchase products that violate their religious principles with an attempt to ban birth control. Though Obama did nothing on immigration reform during his first term as he promised, in the summer, he did issue an executive order on immigration aimed at firming up the Hispanic vote.
It worked. Though Obama lost among independent voters by 5 points, according to exit polls, he did rally his base, and the electorate was 6 points more Democratic than it was Republican. He carried women and young voters by wide margins and blew away Romney among Hispanics, 71 percent to 27 percent.
No doubt, Republicans will have a lot to think about after this election, particularly when it comes to appealing to women, Hispanics and young voters. And even if Obama does nothing in his second term, it will mean that his national health care law will be implemented in 2014. Any sort of health care reform by a future Republican president will have to start with that as a baseline. This is no small feat.
But in a larger sense, Obama did not win an ideological victory yesterday. He did not get reelected in a landslide like Ronald Reagan in 1984. Instead, he scored an Electoral College victory and what looks like a narrow popular vote win by employing the same sort of tactics he once decried. Karl Rove may be a big loser tonight, but his brand of politics is here to stay.