Political action committee

The world according to Karl Rove

January 4, 2013: 10:15 AM ET

The Republican strategist spoke with Fortune about why leading a super PAC is easier than building a political campaign and how he can't do anything about being a myth.130104031216-karl-rove-gallery-horizontal

FORTUNE -- To some, Karl Rove is the heart and soul of the GOP. He has a long history of counseling prominent Republicans. Most memorably, he designed George W. Bush's successful presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004. Recently, he co-founded and helped run the super PAC American Crossroads, which, along with affiliated groups, raised over $100 million for Governor Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

Rove is also a public figure. He writes a column for the Wall Street Journal, and was frequently on Fox News during the 2012 election. On election night, Rove famously told the network to be cautious about calling swing state Ohio for Obama too soon, which spurred the network to interview its own decision desk on air.

Rove spoke with Fortune about why leading a super PAC is easier than building a political campaign and how he can't do anything about being a myth.

An edited transcript is below.

Fortune: Leading as an advisor is more behind the scenes than other kinds of leadership. What is it like to influence these incredibly powerful people?

Karl Rove: Well, I'm not certain I would necessarily agree with the term "incredibly powerful people." I do think that whenever you give advice to political clients, political candidates, or business organizations, you have to understand how they go about making decisions and what's their ultimate goal. And then there just has to be an incredible amount of directness.

Really? That's interesting. Because there's a general view that politicians dance around issues.

Well, you know, people are capable of keeping conflicting emotions and conflicting opinions of things in their brains at the same time. So a political candidate or an office holder needs to understand the best policy and then what's the best way to explain that policy. But sometimes, even doing the right thing will not be well received.

In retrospect, the surge in Iraq was the right decision for George W. Bush, but it was an unpopular decision at the time and it remains unpopular today.

Do you think it was unpopular because it wasn't communicated correctly?

No, look, sometimes people just don't have a good opinion about a particular policy. Now, ultimately they might look back and say, "That was the right thing to do," but particularly controversial measures tend to be controversial for a reason.

You've worked with many different politicians over time. How do you reconcile the needs of one candidate with the needs of the entire party?

Each political party is an expression of a large group of individual actors writing their own scripts. Generally, because our parties are, roughly, one center-left and the other center-right, the scripts tend to be similar.

Effective campaigns take the candidate at his or her natural best and put it on display, they don't mold a candidate into the ideal image of what the consultant thinks the people want to hear.

Voters, at the end of the day, are trying to do the right thing. Authenticity matters a lot.

This last election was exhausting. Do you still like what you do?

I enjoy the idea of a puzzle. And the puzzle is, "how do you take someone from where they are and get hem to the end?" It's also interesting because it's a collaborative process.

How is leading a super PAC different from organizing a campaign?

Decision-making tends to be easier. Campaigns are the expression of their candidates. So you'll have friends and advisors and spouses and a candidate who's on a campaign trail and needs time to absorb the information you're proposing.

It's just a lot less complicated and, as a result, a little bit more seductive in a super PAC world.

What about you? There is a kind of mythology around your power.

There is. I'm a myth, not a human being.

Why is that?

I have no idea. I think it's just easier. Political scientists use the term heuristics. Heuristics are shortcuts to understanding something broader about somebody or something.

Does that ever work to your advantage?

You know what? It is what it is. There's little or nothing I can do to change it.

I have to ask about the Fox broadcast of the election results. That was reported as a blow to your career, do you see it that way?

The Fox people thought it was good TV. They wanted an opportunity to explain how they arrive at a decision. They're sitting there saying, "We've now called Ohio and there's 991 votes separating the two candidates." So they wisely said, "We have confidence in our decision desk, but let's get Karl to voice this concern. It's a legitimate concern -- let's voice it and let's use this as a teachable moment."

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