Why Dick Morris is out at Fox, but Karl Rove survives

Both pundits were way off in their predictions for the 2012 elections. But Karl Rove is still a GOP player, while Dick Morris isn't. Fox's decision to drop Sarah Palin also fits the scheme.

Peter Kramer/NBC/AP/File
Karl Rove makes an appearance on NBC's 'Today' show in this file photo. He will continue to be an analyst on Fox News after this contract was renewed.

Dick Morris is out at Fox News, but Karl Rove is in.

The future of the republic does not hinge on this development, but the divergence in the conservative commentators’ fates is nevertheless telling. Both, after all, had issued spectacularly wrong predictions on who would win last November’s presidential race. (Mitt Romney in a landslide!) Both were adamant, night after night, that their data were rock solid.

On election night, Mr. Rove went so far as to challenge Fox News’ decision to call Ohio for President Obama, which effectively called the election. In the most entertaining bit of TV all night, Fox’s cameras followed while anchor Megyn Kelly led Rove back into the bowels of the network’s political operations to talk to the number-crunchers about their decision.

But while being entertaining (and therefore profitable) certainly matters at Fox – as with all the cable news channels – it doesn’t explain why Fox gave Rove a new, multiyear contract and dropped Mr. Morris, as reported Tuesday night by Politico. The reason is more about relevance and how the network is positioning itself, say analysts of political media.

“Karl Rove is still a major player in Republican Party politics,” says Jeffrey Jones, a professor of media and politics at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.  “He still runs his 'super PAC,' and he has shown himself to be important and influential. Dick Morris doesn’t get you anything. He’s not really a player.”

Indeed, in the last election, Rove’s two outside groups – American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS – spent upwards of $125 million on TV ads opposing Mr. Obama and supporting GOP presidential nominee Romney, not to mention the other Republican candidates the groups supported (albeit with limited success).

Rove originally made his name as the architect of George W. Bush’s two successful presidential campaigns. Morris gained fame as an adviser to President Clinton, most notably schooling him on the art of political “triangulation” after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994. But Morris hasn’t had a big second act like Rove’s.

Mr. Jones also sees in Fox’s personnel decisions – including, too, the decision to drop Sarah Palin – an effort by the network to update its brand.

“It’s time for fresh faces,” Jones says, noting a decline in Fox’s ratings among a key demographic.  

One figure who has moved to Fox (from CNN) is Erick Erickson, a 30-something conservative blogger at RedState.com. And adding a jolt of ideological diversity to Fox is left-wing former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio.

Fox is still the king of cable news – nine of the top 10 programs in January were on Fox – but, as rival network MSNBC points out, Fox hit a 12-year low with the 25-to-54 age group in prime time last month.

Another aspect of Fox’s recent moves may be ideological. In keeping Rove but parting company with Morris and former Governor Palin, Fox seems to be leaning toward the Republican establishment and away from the tea party. Rove recently started a new super political action committee called the Conservative Victory Project, which aims to help electable candidates win Republican primaries. In the last two cycles, tea party-backed candidates have cost the Republicans several Senate seats.

Rove also appears to have a close connection to Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. In a recent article on Palin’s departure from Fox, Gabriel Sherman of New York Magazine writes that the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee was a “polarizing presence” and presented Mr. Ailes with a management challenge.   

“Her tea party message attracted the ire of establishment poobahs like Karl Rove,” writes Mr. Sherman. “Before the 2010 midterms, Rove complained to Ailes that Palin was damaging the GOP brand and getting too much airtime.”

And what about Morris’s future? Perhaps he will share that information on CNN Wednesday, when he appears on “Piers Morgan Tonight.” 

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