Karl Rove’s Secretive Effort to Defeat Obama
July 27, 2012, 5:00am

By Amy Goodman and Paul Barrett, Democracy Now!

Karl Rove, the man once known as “Bush’s Brain,” has helped found two groups that plan to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for television, radio and online attacks ads to defeat President Obama and restore Republican control of Washington this November. The groups — American Crossroads, whose donors are public, and Crossroads GPS, a so-called “social welfare” organization whose donors are anonymous — operate out of the same offices, share many of the same staff, and pay millions to air similar attack ads. We’re joined by Paul Barrett, assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek about his article published today called “Karl Rove: He’s Back, Big Time.” [includes rush transcript]


AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with a look at one of the masterminds behind efforts to defeat President Obama this November and restore Republican control of Washington. Karl Rove, the man once known as “Bush’s Brain,” helped found two groups that plan to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for television, radio and online attacks ads. This week, his conservative super PAC announced plans to buy $9 million of air time in battleground states for ads like this one.

AMERICAN CROSSROADS AD: American Crossroads is responsible for the content of this advertising. What happened to Barack Obama? The press and even Democrats say his attacks on Mitt Romney’s business record are “misleading, unfair and untrue,” “blowing smoke,” “too far,” “no evidence.” So, why is Obama attacking? He has added $4 billion in new debt every single day. Unemployment is stuck above 8 percent. Family incomes falling. Barack Obama can’t run on that record.

AMY GOODMAN: American Crossroads, the super PAC behind that ad, takes donations from conservative donors who are willing to reveal themselves. For those who wish to remain anonymous, Karl Rove has also founded Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, or Crossroads GPS, a so-called “social welfare” organization or 501(c)(4). It operates out of the same offices as American Crossroads, has many of the same staff, and the ads it creates, like this one, sound similar, as well.

CROSSROADS GPS AD: America has suffered three years of crushing unemployment. Remember this?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’ll create nearly half-a-million jobs by investing in clean energy.

CROSSROADS GPS AD: What really happened? Billions wasted on failed investments, thousands of Americans lost jobs, while stimulus money went to companies that created jobs overseas, paid for by the $4 billion Obama’s added to our debt every day. Tell President Obama, for real job growth, cut the debt. Support the new majority agenda at newmajorityagenda.org.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission against Crossroads GPS, the group behind that ad and others like it. The complaint argues the group is disguising political ads as issue ads in order to skirt the law that allows it to take anonymous donations.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Paul Barrett, assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new article on Karl Rove was just published today; it’s called “Karl Rove: He’s Back, Big Time.” Paul Barrett’s book, latest book, is Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

PAUL BARRETT: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us about Karl Rove and his organizations.

PAUL BARRETT: Well, Karl Rove, of course, left the White House in 2007, seemingly a defeated man, inches away from having been indicted in the Valerie Plame scandal. But he began plotting his return almost immediately. And after watching the Republicans beaten soundly both in the polls and in the fundraising races in 2008, he and some of his colleagues began planning those two organizations you just mentioned, the Crossroads groups. And these are the Republicans’ answers to some of the liberal outside fundraising groups that began to be active in 2004.

But the Republicans seem to have found a formula that have allowed them to leap far ahead of what the Democrats are doing this time around, and it’s expected that they’re going to raise, in total, a billion dollars. That’s in addition to everything that Mitt Romney’s campaign is raising and in addition to everything the Republican National Committee is raising. And it’s thought to be twice what the Democrats are going to be able to raise with their outside groups. So we have an escalating arms race with the Republicans far ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a great chart in your piece, “Karl Rove: [He’s] Back, Big Time,” Rove’s political circles.


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the contributors, known and unknown.

PAUL BARRETT: Sure. Well, the main one we talk about in the lead of the article is Steve Wynn, the casino mogul, someone who hasn’t been discussed very much so far in this race. We’ve heard a lot about Sheldon Adelson, who’s been giving a lot of money, first to Newt Gingrich and then subsequently to Romney. But Wynn, who’s traditionally identified as a Democrat, it turns out, was one of the people who Rove has been working on in recent times. They’re personal friends. They’ve attended each other’s weddings within the last year or so.

AMY GOODMAN: Karl Rove just got married again for the third time.

PAUL BARRETT: That is correct. And Wynn has given millions of dollars to the Crossroads GPS group, the group to which you can contribute unlimited amounts without being publicly identified. And this is, you know, the source of concern for those who think that there’s a problem with our political system being fueled by anonymous donations, which obviously will favor candidates who have, you know, billionaires on their side.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, Karl Rove was asked during an interview on Fox Business about Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas billionaire who’s donated millions to Crossroads GPS. This clip begins with a recording of Wynn, followed by Rove’s response.

STEVE WYNN: I’m afraid to do anything in the current political environment in the United States. I am saying it bluntly, that this administration is the greatest wet blanket to business and progress and job creation in my lifetime.

GERRI WILLIS: Now, as you probably know, he’s a Democrat. And he’s making these comments about Obama being a “wet blanket” on business. What do you make of that?

KARL ROVE: Well, look, he’s been an outspoken advocate for pro-business policies. And look, the president, between Obamacare and the stimulus bill and the failed—you know, the failed attempts to put a cap and trade on, the regulatory policies on the environment, on financial institutions—it is a damper on our economic growth. And it’s not just the policies. The rhetoric of the administration has been anti-business, you know, basically demonizing sectors in the American private sector.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Karl Rove talking about Steve Wynn. Paul Barrett, continue to talk about Steve Wynn.

PAUL BARRETT: Yeah, that’s an excellent example of the Rove operation, which is so dexterous in how it combines media with money to accomplish its political ends. I mean, there you see Rove on Fox, where he is a regular contributor. He is also a regular contributor to another platform within the Murdoch empire, the Wall Street Journal. And you hear him attacking President Obama, while the groups that he founded, whose ads you showed earlier, run anti-Obama ads. And the interesting thing is that one of those groups enjoys nonprofit status as a non-political, social welfare organization. This is something to which, you know, campaign finance experts may object, but we have such a feckless FEC policing the situation—

AMY GOODMAN: The Federal Election Commission.

PAUL BARRETT: The Federal Election Commission—that everyone knows nothing is going to happen, at least not until after the election. So we have a situation where there are almost no meaningful rules, and anything goes. And as a result, we have this escalation in political spending.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how this came to be.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Citizens United and before that.

PAUL BARRETT: Yeah, you really have to start the story long before Citizens United. We had Watergate, which was in large part a scandal about secret political contributions, among other corruption. Watergate led to a wave of reforms in the mid-1970s. But then, immediately, the Supreme Court stepped in and said restricting campaign money is not as straightforward as you might like it to be when you’ve got a First Amendment. The Supreme Court, in Buckley v. Valeo, a very important decision in 1976, basically set up a very problematic system, where contributions were restricted, but spending was protected as speech under the First Amendment. Once you have that discrepancy, you have an incentive to find ways to get money to the candidates and their campaigns to spend, since that’s unlimited. And ever since, you’ve basically had a process of K Street loophole artists finding ways to get the money to the candidates to avoid those campaign contribution limits.

In the ’90s, of course, we had soft money, which was union and corporate contributions to the parties rather than the candidates. Then we had McCain-Feingold, the reforms of 2002, which ended soft money, but the reaction to McCain-Feingold was the founding of the groups we have now. You have the 527s, the so-called super PACs. You have the social welfare organizations. And we just have a new mechanism to get around campaign contribution limits. And as campaigning has gotten more and more expensive, wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions have stepped up to fuel this race.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, Karl Rove appeared on Fox News and defended the right of American Crossroads to keep secret names of its donors.

KARL ROVE: We’ve seen this before. In the 1940s and ’50s, a number of state attorneys general attempted to force a particular 501(c)(4) to disclose its donors. Their purpose was to intimidate people into not giving to that organization. The group was the NAACP, which is a 501(c)(4) — has a 501(c)(4) and does not disclose its donors. That effort failed. In fact, the Supreme Court, in a 1954 case, upheld the right of organizations like that not to make their donors’ names public.

Let’s be honest what this is about. This is about a group of people on the left who have used this vehicle, 501(c)(4)s, to run advertising and to run attacks on Republicans for years, who now object when Republicans begin to duplicate their tactics, and they want to intimidate people into not giving to these conservative efforts. And I think it’s shameful. I think it’s a sign of their fear of democracy. And it’s interesting that they have antecedents, and the antecedents are a bunch of segregationist attorney generals trying to shut down the NAACP. Goes to show the base emotions and the base philosophy that’s behind most of this.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Karl Rove—

PAUL BARRETT: You have to give Karl Rove—

AMY GOODMAN: —comparing his group.

PAUL BARRETT: Yeah, you have to give Karl Rove his due. He’s a very smart man. He’s a terrific rhetorician. Whether you agree with his logic that the NAACP is the equivalent of Crossroads GPS, that the supporters of the NAACP in the 1950s trying to desegregate American institutions are equivalent to billionaire casino moguls who today want to oust Barack Obama, is of course a question of your political and social views. But Rove has a point. Democrats have used these same techniques. And, in fact, in 2004, Democrats pioneered some of these techniques. And there are Democrats—there are very wealthy Democrats who have made the same kinds of contributions. So his, you know, pot-calling-the-kettle-black argument does have some merit.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to look more at Rove’s political circles. You mentioned Steve Wynn—


AMY GOODMAN: —the Las Vegas casino tycoon, who said he actually voted for Obama in 2008. Explain what angered him about Obama, why he then got so angry.

PAUL BARRETT: Well, what he says angered him—and we have to take him at his word—is that he didn’t realize that Obama was a pro-business-regulation figure and that he believes that the health overhaul law, Obama’s positions on taxes, have caused a tremendous damper for business and business expansion. You know, you can get into sort of a psychological analysis here. I’m not sure which candidate Obama he was listening to. I don’t think Obama has done very much in office that was different from what he ran on. But, you know, it’s a free country, and if Mr. Wynn wants to change his allegiances, he’s certainly free to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: And also, in terms of changing allegiances with Sheldon Adelson, who he did not get along with—didn’t one of them chase the other out of his office once?

PAUL BARRETT: Yeah. Well, you know, that’s a psychological analysis that some people have suggested, that perhaps as Sheldon Adelson has become such a prominent figure and kingmaker in Republican politics, perhaps, you know, figuratively speaking, across the street in Las Vegas, Mr. Wynn wanted to kind of get into the action. These guys do like to exercise their influence.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about Harold Simmons, Daniel Loeb, Sam Zell, Trevor Rees-Jones.


AMY GOODMAN: Who are these people?

PAUL BARRETT: Well, what you see there is the breadth, the different industries that people are coming from. Sam Zell is the Chicago real estate magnate. Daniel Loeb is a New York financier and hedge fund manager. Simmons is one of the great, old-line Dallas industrialists. Rove has a particular strength in Texas, where he worked for many, many years. Of course, he helped nurture George W. Bush, helped get him get elected governor of Texas and then was behind his presidential campaigns, as well. So he is very, very strong in the Texas energy industry, knows many, many very wealthy people there. And he is, by all accounts, a terrific fundraiser and someone who these very wealthy people really enjoy kind of kibitzing with and talking to about politics. This is not a science. This is an art. This is a question of personal relationships. And Rove is very, very skilled at those things.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Rove’s relationship with Romney?

PAUL BARRETT: Rove and Romney have no long history of friendship or alliance. But Rove has become basically the embodiment of the establishment of the Republican Party. In the same way that Romney is sort of the alternative to the Tea Party, Rove is the alternative to the Tea Party. And Rove basically helped sort out the Tea Party candidates, pushed them to one side. He was important in 2010, 2011, criticizing people like Sarah Palin, criticizing Michele Bachmann, criticizing Herman Cain, and basically helping sort out the Republican field so that Romney could emerge. And this is because Rove and his allies saw Romney as the most electable alternative. And they may not have any tremendous affection for him on a personal level or any great history with him, but he think he’s—but they think he’s the winner.

AMY GOODMAN: George W. Bush will not be attending the Republican convention.

PAUL BARRETT: Remarkable, isn’t it? I think that’s an extraordinary illustration of his apparent alienation from his own party, his frustration over the fact that the party has abandoned him, that you never hear Romney talking about the George W. Bush legacy. And I think it’s poignant, at a human level, and really, really striking that the Republican Party wants to forget about George W. Bush, and he seems to want to forget about them.

AMY GOODMAN: The Federal Election Commission, Paul Barrett?


AMY GOODMAN: When you say it’s ineffectual, what happened to it? And what about the CREW complaint that has just been filed?

PAUL BARRETT: The Federal Election Commission has been ineffective basically for its entire existence, since the Watergate era reforms. But at the moment, it’s gone to a new extreme. You’ve got an agency that’s split three to three along partisan terms and literally cannot resolve any complaint. Every significant complaint that’s brought to the FEC, where someone like CREW or one of the political parties steps forward and says, “We think someone’s cheating on the other side. They’re not following the laws,” the result is going to be a three-three stalemate, and nothing will happen. So it’s as if you have a police department, but that the police department has gone fishing. They don’t do anything.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s go back to where we started, with Karl Rove about to be criminally indicted and how he was resuscitated, being involved with the investigation of whether he was involved with outing Valerie Plame, naming a covert CIA agent.

PAUL BARRETT: Right. Well, that scandal of course had its roots in the activities of Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who publicly called out the Bush administration on the, you know, weapons of mass destruction justification for the invasion of Iraq. And Wilson basically blew the whistle on that. The administration was, you know, mightily angrily about Wilson, and shortly thereafter, lo and behold, Wilson’s wife, Plame, who was a CIA operative, was outed, as you said. Ultimately, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, was indicted in connection with that leak to the media. Rove was investigated. He appeared before a grand jury no fewer than five times in 2006. Ultimately, he was not charged. And he always insisted that he had not been one of the sources for those leaks.

And, you know, you have to emphasize that he was not indicted. But as he describes in his own memoir, you know, he came about as close to getting indicted as you could before the special prosecutor decided to pull back and not criminally charge him. So that’s the legacy there. It’s ambiguous. Certainly people who are skeptics of the Bush administration, who raise an eyebrow over why the Bush administration would publicly expose a dedicated career CIA operative in that fashion, would probably include Rove in that effort, but there was no criminal liability, ultimately, and that’s where we stand.

AMY GOODMAN: And he got resuscitated by, what, going on the payroll of—he was writing his own story?

PAUL BARRETT: Well, he got resuscitated by a dint of his own effort. I mean, this is a guy who immediately set about repairing his image and restarting a whole new career as a media wise man. I mean, he—you know, he signed on with Fox, and he signed on with the Wall Street Journal, both owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. He wrote this memoir, which he sold with the assistance of Washington super lawyer Bob Barnett, and the book was a bestseller. And, you know, you have to, again, give Karl Rove his due. He’s a very good media commentator. He’s very coherent. He knows the data. In fact, I would say that he knows, you know, the mechanics of campaigning and the demographics of the United States and the county-by-county situation in politics in our country as well as anybody in the country. I mean, this guy really knows his stuff and is, on his side of the aisle, considered to be the premier, you know, procedural strategic thinker.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Paul Barrett, assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new article on Karl Rove was just published today; it’s called “Karl Rove: He’s Back, Big Time.” When we come back, we’ll talk with Paul Barrett about the Aurora massacre, because he’s also author of the book, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun. Stay with us.