Consultants in Conservative Crosshairs As GOP Brass Calls For Reforms

Karl Rove, the "Architect" behind George W. Bush's political ascendance, leads the list of Republican veterans that firebrand conservatives wish to eliminate from the party.

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Karl Rove, former Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush, walks on the floor at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

It’s no coincidence that Karl Rove has become the man conservatives love to hate at the very moment that Republican political consultants are trying to reform the GOP.

At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, Rove and his consultant colleagues were roundly criticized by more conservative Republicans for meddling in primaries and losing elections — and for getting rich doing so.

The anti-consultant turn is one facet of the broader party schism that was on stark display at CPAC, where a mainstream Republican like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and even conservative Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell were not invited, while Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian Kentucky Senator took first place in the conference’s straw poll.

The roots of the Rove hatred date to the first term of George W. Bush: Grassroots activists blame Rove for the explosion in public spending in Bush’s first; they blame him for party collapse in 2006. Now the base blames him for the 2012 debacle, as well.

Indeed the latest outbreak in the civil war inside the GOP between its conservative base and its veteran party operatives came days before GOP leaders were to release a new round of reforms designed to modernize the party after its 2012 defeat, and among other things, reduce the influence of mostly conservative fringe factions have in choosing the party’s eventual nominee.

The report, called the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” recommended the swift implementation of comprehensive immigration reform and a more tolerant approach to those who disagree with the official stance on gay marriage and women’s issues. Additionally, a shorter primary calendar with fewer debates is being considered, benefiting wealthier, and thus usually establishment, candidates.

(The report also included a nod to dealing with the vast sums collected by campaign consultants, calling for a move to incentive-based pay as opposed to the standard percentage of spending.)

At CPAC, the right wing’s dislike of Washington’s consultant class and it’s entrenched power may have been given special by a well-attended panel on the first day of the conference titled “Should We Shoot all the Consultants Now?” But the topic also dominated the conversation in the convention center halls and the addresses of the conservative movement’s most popular figures.

Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee turned conservative firebrand, said the Republican Party needs to look to its core principles and not politics to win electoral victories.

Sarah Palin

Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past weekend.

“Now is the time to furlough the consultants, and tune out the pollsters, send the focus groups home, and toss the political scripts,” she said, drawing one of the longest ovations of the conference. “Because if we truly know what we believe, we don’t need professionals to tell us.”

Then in a thinly veiled reference to Rove, who Bush credited as the “architect” of his reelection in 2004, Palin added that “the last thing we need is Washington, D.C., vetting our candidates. The architects can head on back to the great Lone Star state and put their names on some ballot.”

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich added, “The Republican establishment is just plain wrong about how it approaches politics,” he said. “The Republican consulting class is just plain wrong about how it approaches politics.”

And Brent Bozell, the founder of the Media Research Council and an unabashed critic of Rove, delivered a broadside against the entire Republican establishment from Speaker of the House John Boehner on down, but saved his harshest words for Rove, whom he declared was “never a conservative.”

“Rove knee-capped Christine O’Donnell,” he said of the conservative 2010 Delaware Senate candidate who unexpectedly won a primary over a moderate Republican before losing the general election. “He’s called Rick Perry’s ideas ‘toxic.’ Says Sarah Palin ‘lacks gravitas.’ He’s declared publicly that Rand Paul ‘causes the GOP squeamishness.’  Do you know what he’s called you? The party’s ‘nutty fringe.’ And now he says he wants to protect the GOP from “challenges by far-right conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts…The last thing the GOP needs is for the anti-conservative professional political consultant class infecting its ranks. And the last thing we conservatives want is them infiltrating ours.”

But eliminating the consultants’ power over the GOP is impossible. The party veterans, like Rove, enjoy the support among many of the party’s big donors as well as officials from the biggest Republican state parties. Yet the grassroots distrust may impair the party’s ability to reform itself to better compete after two successive presidential defeats.

“People have to lead,” said Henry Barbour, one of the authors of the RNC report and the national committeeman from Mississippi. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but people have to lead. People have to fight for what is right…It might ruffle some feathers, but that’s fine — this is where the party needs to go.”