OTR Interviews

Rove: Pres. Obama's Playing 'Dumb Politics,' His Whole Act Has Worn a Little Thin

Karl Rove on the shift in momentum in the GOP race, Obama and fiery rhetoric, Christie, Cain and more


This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," September 29, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: All right, tonight: Better hold on because there are more twists, turns and upside-downs than a roller-coaster! Now it's Mr. Herman Cain. Two weeks ago, he was almost a asterisk in the GOP nomination race, and right now, Governor Perry and Governor Romney, you better look out because Herman Cain is surging and could put both of you in his rearview mirror! But of course, even that can change. Politics are so full of surprises.

Former adviser to President Bush Karl Rove is here to go "On the Record."

Good evening, Karl. And boy, what a difference this week. Herman Cain is surging, a lot of enthusiasm. Why?

KARL ROVE, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR/FORMER BUSH SENIOR ADVISER: He had a good debate performance and he won the Florida straw poll, and it gave him some attention and notoriety. We should be very careful about reading too much into these polls. There's are two stories in the Fox poll. One is Herman Cain has moved up. The other story is Rick Perry has moved down. And we shouldn't be reading too much into either one of them.

This race is going to go back and forth and up and down until people get ready to vote. People are looking at this contest in a different way. They're judging it almost like they would, you know, an Olympic diving contest, rather than the normal presidential contest, where they pick somebody, stay with them and if they make a mistake, they give them an excuse. And you know, in this race, it's being treated a lot differently.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, but it certainly does seem that he's getting a lot of enthusiasm, Herman Cain. I don't think he's going to necessarily be the nominee. I don't know what his numbers are going to be tomorrow. But I certainly have got enough of a sense reading newspapers across the country and talking to people that he has connected, at least for the moment.

Meanwhile, you mentioned Governor Rick Perry. He has two huge problems. He had that horrible comment to many Republicans about having heart with illegal immigration. Plus he has the -- the opt out part of the vaccine. So that was -- gave him some trouble. So he certainly has hit, you know, some rough spots.

ROVE: Yes. I frankly think, almost more than any specific thing that he said, was the way that the third debate, the expectations were -- you know, the first debate was OK. Second debate, the expectations were that he should improve, and he didn't. The expectations on the third debate was that he needed to improve, and he got much worse. He had two or three very dreadful answers.

So rather than even a specific comment -- and I do think the immigration comment hurt him -- I think it was actually the sort of the tone and how well he handled questions. And again, that's the bad news.

There's also some good news in this. Again, I go back to the analogy of, this is like an Olympic diving trial, and we all are watching these things in a different way than we normally watch them. And we flip up the scorecards at the end of each debate and rate each one of one. And it is possible that -- entirely possible for governor Perry to come back.

He will need to have a very good set of debate performances in October. He can't have a so-so debate and a good debate. He's got to have two really good debates. And he also has to show a good fund-raising number here on October 15th.

And look, he comes from a big state. He's raised a lot of money for his governor's races, a lot of money for the Republican Governors Association. He'll probably be able to post a pretty good number.

VAN SUSTEREN: But isn't it significant -- I mean, in spite of the fact that I realize how different each day can be in this political season -- is it not significant that Mr. Herman Cain, who doesn't have the huge money, doesn't have the huge machine, and has -- and he won the Florida straw poll, and he's getting a lot of the attention by people, and at least for the moment, he seems to connect with the voters and at least some people might -- some people might appreciate his 9-9-9 as being a very sort of simplified way of looking at taxes, which is something that really rubs a lot of Republicans the wrong way.

ROVE: Yes. Look, this -- you touched on the good points. Again, though, I would make the point that until we start seeing him moving in these early states, like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and we see some durability for this -- remember, we went -- we've been through this exercise a couple of times already this season. We had the -- Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll and jumped in the polls, and now has dwindled away. We had Governor Perry come in and jump to a commanding lead, and now in the FOX poll, he's fallen back into second place.

I suspect we're likely to see the same thing for Herman Cain because he had a really good debate performance, won the Florida straw polls, and then it'll be three weeks until the next -- between the Florida straw poll and the next debate. And during that time, we'll turn our attention to two different things. One is what everybody reports in terms of money. That's going to be a measure of how well they're doing.

And second of all, whether or not anybody gives a substantive policy speech between now and the next debate that draws attention. Otherwise, it's going to be the humdrum, the back-and-forth of the day to day, and the only way that Herman Cain can affect his numbers there is to make a mistake, which I'm sure he's not going to make.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, so meanwhile, while the attention is on what some people say is the bad performance by Governor Perry and the surge by Mr. Herman Cain, there's the -- it seems like one of the people that sort of has avoided some of the noise is Governor Romney. But then today, Jay Carney, White House press secretary, sort of embraced him on this whole idea of the mandate, and he was quoted -- he says that he was even quoting Governor Romney as saying the mandate was a, quote, "conservative" idea. At what point, if at any point, does this health care in Massachusetts, or his statements about it being a conservative idea, this mandate -- do those statements ever come back to haunt him in the primary season?

ROVE: Well, look, the president has already said this any number of times. In fact, as recently as the bus trip last month, the president was saying, All we did in Washington is what they did in Massachusetts.

Look, Governor Romney has a choice. He gets to either have a debate with President Obama about how his plan is different than President Obama's, or he gets to have a debate with fellow Republicans over the issue. If I were him, I'd be having the debate with President Obama.

Now, he started to say -- to have that debate earlier month when he was on with South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. And he said a little bit, I think, in the third debate, where he started to describe some of the differences between Massachusetts and Washington. But it's a debate that is better for him to have sooner, rather than later. And it's better for him to have the debate with President Obama than it is to have a debate with eight Republicans on a stage in some debate somewhere.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, you raised President Obama's name. And today in your op-ed piece, it looks like you gave him a little advice on how he can run and -- or how he can win reelection. One of them is to offer a positive, uplifting vision. That was the strategy of 2008, according to your op-ed. The other choice was to feed the Democratic base red meat. Do you want explain that?

ROVE: Well, first of all, I'm not giving him advice. If I was giving him advice, he wouldn't be listening to it anyway. I'm just describing...

VAN SUSTEREN: I was teasing.

ROVE: ... for people who are interested in watching the contest -- yes, I got that. But I want to be clear because otherwise, I'll get some e-mails, as I've already gotten, from people who say, Why are you giving President Obama advice? Well, I'm just commenting on the options available to him.

I think the wiser course for him would have been to say, What is it that I need to lay out in the way of a positive agenda that allows me both to stoke the enthusiasm of Democrats, and more importantly, reach out to the swing voters who are upset with me and are up for grabs in this election?

President Obama is playing dumb politics. He has made the -- he's made the assumption, he's operating on the assumption, that his principal problem is with Democrats. Uh-uh! His principal problem is with people like young voters, whose approval rating has dropped 30 points with him. It's with independent and college-educated voters. It's with women. It's with Latinos.

Those five groups have moved away from the president by big margins since the time that he got inaugurated, and they were all -- all critical to his election in 2008. And the kind of things that he's doing now with class warfare and attacks on the Republicans, and these ridiculous strawman arguments, like when he said the Republicans, all they want to do is close down the government, return everybody's money, end the regulation, and tell everybody they're on their own, and that's not the way of America. I haven't heard a single Republican say that, but the president goes out there and says it!

In San Jose, he went out and said, Well, the Republicans would cripple America. That kind of rhetoric turns off the independents and the college- educated voters and young people and Latinos and women who are so critical to his election victory. And he's doing this because he thinks he's got a deep, enduring problem with Democrats. He really doesn't.

Take a look at this. In a matchup with Governor Romney, today Barack Obama carries 88 percent of Democrats -- 85 percent of Democrats. And against Governor Perry, 88 percent of Democrats. Now, he can do better, but not a whole heck of a lot better. Those are pretty good numbers for where we find ourselves at this point in the race.

And if I were him, I wouldn't be worried about those people. He can get them back easily. I'd be worried about the swing voters. And instead, he's adopting language and tactics and an approach that are going to turn them off!

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, then, why in your op-ed does it say he should feed the Democratic base? Because I would think he would just do the opposite. Sounds like they're locked in. If -- if I were...

ROVE: No, no. No.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... President Obama, I would -- go ahead.

ROVE: Yes, no, I didn't say he should feed them. I said he's got two strategies. One is a positive and optimistic vision which would have the effect of reenergizing the Democrats and allowing him to go after the swing voters, or the other strategy, which he's adopted, which is feed the red meat to the Democratic donors and the Moveon.org kind of people, and that kind stuff -- he'll -- he'll marginally reenergize them, but he will do so by leaving an impression about, you know, being class warfare and maybe over the top and angry rhetoric and divisive and not a uniter that will linger among the swing voters and will hurt him in his ability to bring them into his camp.

It's like he's sort of like acting like, Look, I can say these outrageous things and it makes the left-wingers really happy, but all of the people who are up for grabs in the election who really voted for Republicans in '10 after voting for Democrats in '06 and '08, they aren't listening at all. They will never hear this stuff.

Baloney! They're hearing it! They're listening to it, and they'll remember it and it will make it that much more difficult for the president to pivot and somehow one day say, Oh, I'm a different guy than I've been for the last six or seven or eight months.

Remember we had this with Al Gore. He was, like, angry Al Gore and then he was populist Al Gore and then he was conciliator Al Gore. People - - it damaged his credibility. The president is running the risk of doing the that here, and I think has actually done himself a grave risk by the pattern of the last six to eight weeks.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, any idea how big this swing voter group is, number one? And number two, what is their main issue?

ROVE: Well, look, it depends on how you define it, but I think that the -- what we're talking about here is we are talking about potentially as much as a fifth or a quarter of the electorate, which is a big chunk, particularly when you talk about independent voters.

And look, their issues are -- the interesting thing, if you look inside the data, their attitude -- what's concerning them is the economy, deficits, debt, spending, and the Affordable Care Act, and the tone in Washington. And in each of these -- each of the four policy instances, they look more like Republicans than they do Democrats.

And the tone, they hold the president responsible. He's the president who led them to believe he would not be the president of red states or blue states, but of the United States. And this angry class warfare tone is much at odds with what he was doing in 2008.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. In light of where the voters stand and the different policies of the different Republican candidates and the president -- the president has an enormous amount of money. It's expected he's going to have a lot of money going into this -- into the general campaign. Can you -- can you win with a big fat war chest? It can be so destructive to your opponent and so positive towards yourself that that money becomes so much more important than message?

ROVE: Money allows you to convey message. And yes, that does matter. Look, for example, in North Carolina in 2008, President Obama outspent John McCain I think it was like a -- you know, better than 2 to 1. In Indiana, I think it was, like, 7 to 1. Virginia, better than 2 to 1. And as a result, he was able to carry these traditionally Republican states.

The last time Indiana and Virginia voted for a Democrat for president, 1964. Last time North Carolina did so, 1976. And yet Obama had this huge cash advantage in the fall of 2008 that allowed him to just overwhelm the defenses of -- of John McCain.

Now, money itself doesn't help -- doesn't do it all. You have to have a strong, good message, and he had a strong message then, which was, I'm going to be a different kind of candidate who's going to bring the country together, change the tone in Washington. I'm upset with the deficits of the Bush years. I'm going to cut taxes for everybody who makes less than $250,000 a year.

And interestingly enough, the second most widely displayed ad of the Obama campaign in battleground states in the fall of 2008 was an ad that said, Government-run health care? Extreme -- exclamation point, close quote. He developed a different tone as a centrist than he has governed -- since he's governed from the far left.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, Governor Christie -- I actually believe he's not going run. He said no so many times. But it doesn't seem like the drama stops. Every newspaper -- every day you pick a newspaper and there'll be someone who says, Well, he still hasn't made up his mind. Do you want to get into this voodoo game? Is he going to run or not? And should he or shouldn't he?

ROVE: Well, look, first of all, I don't know whether he's going to run or not because on the one hand, he said last night, Go look at Politico, they've got 1:53 of me saying I will never run. And then when he got that very heartfelt question from the woman, he said, you know, in essence, you know, You'd have to be insane not to be moved by that.

So I mean, if he was going to say -- if he was going to definitively say, I'm not running, he could have said so easily. In fact, he had sounded like he did so with his Politico answer, Look at Politico, see what the -- see the tape of what I've said. So I think he's still thinking about it, but whether or not he runs, I don't know.

He's got a very limited timeframe to jump in. Now, should he jump in? Look, that's up to him. If he does jump in, I think it jiggles the contest in interesting ways. And whether he wins or not, I think it ends up making the Republican candidates stronger. Ironically enough, the better -- the better the field at the top, the better the nominee becomes because he or she has to engage in a strong campaign over a sustained period of time. And you know, it's sort of like, you know, good things roll out. The right -- you know, the strongest person will rise to the top.

But you know, I don't know whether he's going to run or not, but I think we'll know the answer pretty darn quick.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, I can't help but notice it's sort of mirror image of President Obama in terms of experience on issues like jobs. Neither one has had a history of creating jobs. And both of them are quite -- you know, they're inspiring to listen to them speak or -- and -- so I'm not -- I'm not so sure that they're so profoundly -- they have different politics, but in terms of what they present to the voters, there's an awful a lot of similarities.

ROVE: Oh, I think there's a big difference in the way that they speak. Chris Christie speaks from the heart, not from the teleprompter, and he's a straight shooter. I mean, there's no artifice with this guy, which is why we're all...

VAN SUSTEREN: I think I'm talking about the effect that's created...

ROVE: ... confused because normally...

VAN SUSTEREN: I think -- I think the effect that's created -- I mean, Republicans are dazzled by Governor Christie and Democrats are dazzled by President Obama.

ROVE: Well, I think it was Democrats were dazzled by President Obama. I'm not certain -- I think that whole act has worn a little thin. But you're right, Republicans have seen him. He's become a folk hero. I mean, the Internet has made this -- and social media have made this in part possible because you can go to the YouTube and catch any one of the town hall meetings where he is confronted by union protesters or state government employees and he -- and he speaks, you know, passionately and straightforward from his heart about the taxpayers of New Jersey and what they deserve to have as part of the policy debate.

So you know, I think you're right that he is -- Christie's style has won him a lot -- won him a lot of admiration.

VAN SUSTEREN: Karl, nice to see you. Thank you, sir.

ROVE: You bet, Greta. Thank you.