Karl Rove faces backlash on Hillary Clinton remarks. Did he go too far?

Democrats as well as some Republicans say remarks by Karl Rove about Hillary Clinton's health were out of bounds. But the GOP strategist has his defenders, who note that the media always scrutinize the health of serious presidential candidates.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Republican strategist Karl Rove speaking in Sacramento, Calif., March 2, 2013. Rove is facing a political backlash Wednesday after he questioned Hillary Clinton's health.

Karl Rove is facing a political backlash Wednesday after he questioned whether Hillary Rodham Clinton suffered a brain injury in a 2012 fall.

Democrats and some Republicans said the remarks were out of bounds and were meant only to start unfounded rumors about Mrs. Clinton’s health in advance of a possible 2016 presidential campaign.

For instance, former GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich said on his Facebook page that he is “deeply offended” by Mr. Rove’s comments. While he has many policy disagreements with Clinton, such a personal charge “is exactly what’s wrong with American politics,” wrote Mr. Gingrich.

“I was angry when people did this to [Ronald] Reagan in 1980 and I am angry when they do it to her today,” said Gingrich.

Other critics are focused on what they called Rove’s history of political dirty tricks. Opponents in Rove’s home state of Texas have charged in the past that he has passed along rumors about the sexual orientation of political opponents. In the 2000 presidential campaign, fliers and e-mails in the key GOP primary state of South Carolina falsely accused Sen. John McCain (R) of having an African-American “love child.” McCain staffers accused Rove and the George W. Bush campaign of being the sources of this effort.

Rove uses such tactics because they work, writes left-leaning Ed Kilgore at The Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog. Mr. Bush won that election. Rove became a wealthy and powerful GOP consultant and fundraiser.

“Not only do Rove’s drive-bys leave debris on their victims; he always seems to escape unscathed,” writes Mr. Kilgore.

However, many on the right defend Rove against all this umbrage, saying the media ask questions about the health status of all serious White House candidates and the issue would have arisen at some point as a matter of course.

Rove himself pushed back on Tuesday, saying that contrary to many media reports he did not say Clinton had brain damage. “Never used that phrase,” he said in a Fox News appearance.

“This will be an issue in the 2016 presidential race, whether she likes it or not,” said Rove. “Get ready: The New York Times is going to be asking a lot of tough questions about every candidate’s health. They always do and it’s going to be an issue.”

It’s possible that Rove’s remarks were aimed at internal Republican politics as much as Clinton’s political future. He has become a symbol of the establishment GOP to many in the tea party. They see him as someone who raises money to fight tea party primary challengers, in favor of support for old-line Republican candidates.

In challenging Clinton, a widely disliked figure among Republicans, Rove might regain some support from his party’s conservative wing. Uniting against the enemy, and all that.

Whether it’s good politics remains to be seen. Clinton’s poll numbers have been highest at times when she is under attack, such as during the impeachment of her husband.

“The two times Clinton has been most popular or politically robust were during the Lewinsky mess and parts of the 2008 campaign, when she came to be seen as a victim of media sexism. Perhaps Rove is so Machiavellian that for some reason he wants Clinton to win in 2016,” writes Isaac Chotiner at the generally left-leaning New Republic.

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