Hughes's Return Is a Blow for Rove

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, March 11, 2005; 12:39 PM

In the three years since Karen Hughes left the White House and her job as counselor to the president, political strategist Karl Rove has increasingly had the run of the place.

The news today that Hughes is coming back means there'll be someone to keep him in check again.

It's not like Hughes and Rove don't agree about a lot of things; they do. They've both been among Bush's top advisers since long before he came to Washington, and they are both ruthlessly effective in pursuing their boss's agenda.

But while Hughes is utterly devoted to Bush, Rove is utterly devoted to building a lasting Republican majority.

And to the extent that there are some areas where those two goals don't entirely overlap, no one in the White House lately has been able to counterbalance Rove like Hughes used to.

The Baker Scoop

Peter Baker broke the story in this morning's Washington Post: "Karen P. Hughes, the longtime adviser to President Bush often described as the most powerful woman ever to work in the White House, plans to return to Washington soon to rejoin the president's team as he sets forth on an ambitious second-term agenda, according to White House officials and outside Republican advisers.

"Seen as a virtual alter ego for Bush who understands how he thinks better than any other adviser, Hughes helped the president build his administration as his counselor in the first term before her surprise resignation in April 2002 to return to Texas with her family. Her forceful presence and physical stature helped cement her position as a key player in any policy decision."

Baker writes that "the decision is not scheduled to be announced until next week. The sources said Hughes will not be a formal member of the White House staff but will take on a specific and particularly important assignment involving international affairs, but they would not identify it."

Does that mean her first job is Iraq? Global democracy? Washington wonks wait with bated breath to find out.

Suskind on Hughes v. Rove

As I wrote in my Feb. 9 column, Rove's recent promotion to deputy chief of staff made him, officially, in charge of pretty much everything at the White House.

That promotion was also in some ways Chief of Staff Andy Card's admission that, without Hughes around, there was no stopping him.

In a seminal 2002 Esquire story, Ron Suskind wrote about how Card, in a rare moment of candor, explained the relative balance of power that existed before Hughes's departure.

" 'The key balance around here,' he says, 'has been between Karen and Karl Rove,' the president's right hand and his left. Rove is much more the ideologue, a darling of the Right, who often swings a sharp sword of partisanship on matters of policy and politics. Hughes, always more pragmatic, mindful of how to draw the most support across a balkanized political terrain, somehow figures how to beat that sword into a plowshare. That is at the core of what has worked so well politically for the president. Both have been with Bush for many years -- Rove first met Bush twenty-nine years ago -- and are ferocious personalities. . . .

" 'That's what I've been doing from the start of this administration. Standing on the middle of the seesaw, with Karen on one side, Karl on the other, trying to keep it in balance. One of them just jumped off.' . . .

Rove himself spoke to Suskind about Hughes: " 'For every ten battles we've had, she's won nine of them. I defer to her completely; she's the best, best ever,' he says. I asked him about whether Hughes's day-to-day absence will mean his more conservative agenda will now have free rein. He paused. 'Well, I certainly hope not,' he said after a moment. 'I certainly hope not,' and then he howled with laughter.

"I tell Card a bit about this. He waves me off. He knows Rove is giddy about the real estate that's now vacant with Hughes's leaving. And as chief of staff, he's clearly girding himself for battles he already sees on the horizon. 'Karl will miss Karen. He may not want to admit it to the level he should, but he'll miss Karen a lot. . . . It's like she's a beauty to Karl's beast.' "

Card told Suskind: "I'll need designees, people trusted by the president that I can elevate for various needs to balance against Karl. . . . They are going to have to really step up, but it won't be easy. Karl is a formidable adversary."

Last March, after Hughes announced she would make a brief return to a more full-time role for the last several months of the presidential campaign, she did several interviews.

NPR's Terry Gross asked Hughes about Suskind's story: "Karen Hughes, do you think -- would you agree that you're returning to serve as a counterweight to Karl Rove and do you think, in your absence, that the Bush administration veered more to the right?

"Ms. HUGHES: No, Terry. You know, Ron's a very creative guy, and I think a lot of people at the White House feel that that was a quite embellished story."

As for Rove, she said: "Now, sure, we have differences. We're both strong-willed personalities. Anyone who's ever been in a room with the two of us knows that we're both tough and outspoken and strong-willed people and we have different perspectives, partly because we have different jobs. My job is the big-picture message. Karl's job -- one of his many jobs -- he has a lot of jobs; he's a great policy thinker as well. But one of his jobs from the political side is to stitch together coalitions to help pass the president's initiatives in Congress or to help re-elect the president or elect the president."

And what about her charge that Suskind's story was embellished? Well, it's worth noting that not long after the story appeared, PBS's Margaret Warner gave Card ample chance to dispute any of his quotes.

"MARGARET WARNER: I mean, is this what you said?

"ANDREW CARD: If I were to go back and forth over every alleged quote in that article, it wouldn't be appropriate.

"The important thing is the White House is working very well. Karen Hughes has been a major contributor to the successes of this president, as has the rest of the White House team, and we work very, very well together. And our job is to serve the president. And he is serving the American people well, because his staff does a good job for him --

"MARGARET WARNER: Somehow I don't feel you're really answering my question. I mean, if --

"ANDREW CARD: It's an irrelevant question because it's not about me; it's about the president and how he performs, and he does a great job. And my job is to make sure the staff does a good for the president, and he has all the tools that he needs to make a decision."

More About Hughes

At the same time that she announced her return to the campaign, Hughes came out with an autobiographical book, "Ten Minutes From Normal."

Hanna Rosin wrote: "The president is described as a 'man of honor,' 'spiritual,' 'wonderful,' 'engaging,' 'humble,' 'in command,' 'possessing a laser-like ability to distill an issue to its core.' He says things in private conversation such as: 'We're sending juveniles the wrong signal by giving them a slap on the wrist when they commit serious crimes.' Hughes says, 'I love the President,' or 'I love the President and Laura Bush,' dozens of times, without blushing."

James Carney wrote in Time in April: "Before she left Washington, it often fell to Hughes to charge 'into the propeller,' as media adviser Mark McKinnon describes the experience of confronting Bush with an unpleasant topic. That is what some Republicans worry has been lacking since Hughes left Bush's side."

Carney wrote: "Within a circle of advisers dominated by conservatives, Hughes ended up the de facto moderate on domestic policy. She was the guardian of Bush's 'compassionate conservative' image and was constantly pushing to have the President focus and speak out on issues like health care and education.

"She pestered him so often about the environment that Bush dubbed her a 'lima green bean.' His other nicknames for her: High Prophet (a play on her maiden name Parfitt) and Hurricane Karen."

In Newsweek's epic post-election post-mortem, Evan Thomas explained Hughes's impact: "Over 6 feet tall, with frosted hair and a strong, flat Texas accent, Hughes had been the chief message maker and enforcer in the 2000 campaign and for the first two years of the Bush presidency. Then she had retreated to Texas to be able to spend more time with her teenage son, who had loathed living in Washington. Hughes had a knack for parroting Bush's tone and voice, for 'channeling' him. She also softened his hard edges. In 2000 Hughes had gently prodded Bush to play the 'compassionate conservative.'

"After she left, the Bush watchers detected a hardening in the Bush line, which they attributed to Rove, who was always reaching out to the party's true believers. Hughes had jockeyed some with Rove for power, but by and large the two forceful figures had produced a consistent message (helped by a boss who insisted on staying 'on message'). Hughes had policed the wayward and zipped loose lips. When she was communications director, talking out of line would earn you 'a size 11 shoe up your [expletive],' according to a former White House official. Journalists were awed by her industrial-strength spin and no-prisoners approach to the chaos of the White House press room. They had nicknamed her Nurse Ratched, after the iron woman who ran the psycho ward in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'

"From her home in Austin, Hughes still weighed in on key speeches and decisions, but there was no one with quite her clout running the White House communications operation. . . . Rove was thought by some White House staffers to have a bit of a tin ear, to lean too hard, to reach too far to cater to his prized right-wing base. (Even Bush would crack, 'That idea's so [expletive] bad it sounds like something Rove came up with.')"

Don't Underestimate Her

Early on in my career as White House Briefing columnist, I learned first-hand the perils of underestimating Hughes.

I was doing my very first Live Online and opened the discussion by saying: "Against my self-interest, I should tell you that I'm up against Karen Hughes, who is taking (I'll bet softball) questions over on the White House Web site."

Meanwhile, Hughes was choosing to take -- and easily handling -- questions like: "Where are the WMD?" and "Did you approve of the President's gay-bashing?"

By contrast, Karl Rove has never taken any questions from Web site users, and Card just posts joking answers.

Social Security Watch

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush loses backing from independents, women and older Americans when he changes the topic from terrorism and foreign policy to overhauling Social Security, an Associated Press poll found."

Charles Babington and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's bid to add individual accounts to Social Security faces such formidable opposition in the Senate that its supporters may be unable to bring it to a vote, according to a Washington Post survey of senators."

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "The vocabulary President Bush uses to describe his plan to overhaul Social Security is evolving as he responds to public opinion.

"Social Security as a 'safety net' is the newest twist in his campaign to allow younger workers to divert some payroll taxes into stocks and bonds."

Keen provides some wonderful examples of how Bush has been fine-tuning his rhetoric.

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "When President Bush began barnstorming on behalf of his Social Security plan last month, his goal at many stops was to convince Congressional Democrats that backing his call for individual investment accounts would be good politics. He is still trying to flex his political muscle to that end, but in a sign of the trouble he faces on the issue, he is increasingly using his travels to buck up -- or even win over -- members of his own party."

Here are the transcripts from Bush's events in Louisville and Montgomery yesterday.

Today, Bush has events in Memphis and Shreveport.

Bush and Racism

Here's the president of the United State using a straw-man argument to implicitly accuse opponents of his plan of being racist.

In Louisville, he said: "Oh, I know they say certain people aren't capable of investing, you know, the investor class. It kind of sounds like to me, you know, a certain race of people living in a certain area. I believe everybody's got the capability of being in the investor class. I believe everybody should be allowed to watch their own assets grow, not just a few people."

Keen made mention of that quote in her USA Today story, but then simply explained that "Bush is trying to overcome concerns that investment accounts are too risky for anyone but the wealthy and are out of reach for minorities."

No one, as far as I can tell, took notice of Bush's implicit accusation of racism -- in fact it looks like no one but Keen mentioned it at all.

Obama on Bush

Jeff Zeleny writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Sen. Barack Obama on Thursday called President Bush's suggestion that African-Americans could reap greater rewards from overhauling Social Security a 'stunning' argument that ignored the true health issues facing blacks in this country."

Said Obama: "There is no doubt a disparity in the lifetime opportunities between white America and black America. . . . The notion that we would cynically use those disparities as a rationale for dismantling Social Security as opposed to talking about how are we going to close the health disparities gap that exists, and make sure that African-American life expectancy is as long as the rest of this nation . . . is stunning to me.

"I frankly found the statement that the president made somewhat offensive."

Bubble Watch

Peter Wallsten and Warren Vieth write a bold and thorough piece in the Los Angeles Times about the stagecraft and screening behind Bush's barnstorming tour -- but why is none of that in their lead?

The headline and first three paragraphs of their story dutifully summarize Bush's main points -- none of them new.

Only then do they get to the real news.

"At his first stop in Louisville, Ky., three hecklers managed to sneak past the White House ticketing process -- designed to grant access to supporters -- and position themselves in separate locations around the auditorium. Each stood and yelled criticisms at different times. . . .

"As Bush travels the nation using campaign-style tactics to try to build support for private accounts, dissent is rare at his appearances. . . .

"Access to the president's events is controlled to ensure that the audiences will be friendly to his cause. Attendance is by invitation only, and tickets are dispensed by Republican lawmakers, state party organizations, business associations and conservative advocacy groups. . . .

" 'The president is engaging in political carnival,' said Tom Matzzie, Washington director of, an advocacy group that opposes Bush's initiative. . . .

"White House spokesman [Trent] Duffy acknowledged that participants in Bush's events did not necessarily represent a cross-section of public sentiment.

" 'He wants to talk with those who support his agenda,' Duffy said. For critics of Bush's approach, 'there are a lot of other venues' to express opposition, he said."

Local Coverage

Here's the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser today, featuring the banner headline: "A Case for Change."

Jannell McGrew writes in the Advertiser: "Before a cheering crowd of thousands, President Bush brought his message of change to Montgomery. His focus: the endangered future of Social Security, America's working young and his plan to cure an ailing program.

" 'I'm saying to the members of the United States Congress, let's fix this system permanently -- no Band-Aids,' Bush told an anxious crowd Thursday inside the gymnasium of Auburn University Montgomery. 'Let's do our duty.' "

Under the banner headline " 'A hole in the safety net'," Elisabeth J. Beardsley writes in the Louisville Courier-Journal: "Flanked by a pair of Louisville grandfathers and granddaughters who support a Social Security overhaul, President Bush said yesterday that Congress must be brave enough to change the retirement system in order to save it."

Beardsley also reported: "James McMillin, who said in a later interview that he was one of the protesters, said he interrupted the event to shout that Bush was 'trying to do away with Social Security.'

"McMillin, 59 and a retired teacher from Louisville, said he and one of the other protesters had agreed that they would try to ask a question but decided to interrupt the event when the format did not allow that.

" 'Other people needed to be heard, rather than the lip service that apparently Mr. Bush is coordinating and orchestrating for most of his appearances,' McMillin said."

Deborah Yetter of the Courier-Journal did some fact-checking of the president's statements: "In citing the advantage of allowing personal investments, Bush said:

" 'A worker, making $35,000 over his or her lifetime, if allowed to set aside 4 percent of the payroll taxes into a personal account, over time by the time he or she retires will have earned $250,000 as part of the retirement system. Now that's her money. That's money that she will be using for retirement.'"

"He didn't explain how he reached that calculation.

"White House press spokesman Taylor Gross said he did not have that information but referred to the White House Web site section on Social Security. That site provides the same example but doesn't cite a source. Gross was unavailable for a further explanation."

Cheney Speaks

Tim Funk writes in the Charlotte Observer: "Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday dismissed polls showing little public support for private investment accounts as part of Social Security and suggested that Democrats who oppose the accounts offer a raw deal to young voters."

Cheney "refused to say how the Bush administration plans to deal with the retirement system's long-term solvency problems. He said it was 'premature' to say whether the administration will support raising the retirement age, lifting the cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes or other proposals floating around Capitol Hill. . . .

"In the one-on-one interview in his West Wing office, Cheney also suggested the administration may soon take a more combative tone toward Democrats who have said they'll never favor -- or even negotiate over -- private accounts."

Carrot Time (Although Maybe Not for Long)

Robin Wright and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "President Bush has decided to back European allies in their plan to offer economic incentives to persuade Iran to abandon any effort to build nuclear weapons, a sharp shift in policy for a government that had long refused to bargain for Tehran's cooperation, senior administration officials said yesterday."

But Wright and Baker conclude: "Bush's willingness to go along with incentives of any kind stems from a desire to gather support for later punitive action, assuming the incentives do not work, and to present a united front before the Security Council."

David E. Sanger and Steven R. Weisman write in the New York Times: "Some officials in the Bush administration have said they believe that Iran will not agree to give up enrichment, no matter what incentives Mr. Bush offers. They see the president's decision to dangle what amount to modest American economic incentives as part of an effort to speed along the negotiating process so that Iran's intentions become clear.

"At that point, in the view of hawks on the issue inside the White House and the Pentagon, the Europeans will be bound to take the issue to the Security Council. These officials would only speak anonymously because such delicate negotiations hang in the balance."

The Bolton Move

James Harding writes in the Financial Times about the nomination of John Bolton as the next US ambassador to the United Nations.

"A senior administration official acknowledged this week that Mr Bolton's nomination had a subtle but beneficial unintended consequence. The coming debate could paint the Democratic party as multilateralist -- a word that may describe an admirable ideology, much like liberalism, but which carries negative connotations in US politics. When asked whether the argument over Mr Bolton threatens to make the Democrats appear aligned with the French and Germans, the official responded: 'Worse. They look like Canadians.' "

Clinton: A Bush Trophy?

Howard Fineman writes on MSNBC about the public embrace of Bill Clinton by father and son Bushes at the White House: "The former president has become the family's favorite hunting trophy, a symbol of their (and the GOP's) successful, decades-long rise to power."

Compassion Watch

The Columbus Dispatch reports on a heart-warming phone call from Bush to assistant fire chief Karry Ellis, who he first met during a campaign stop last September. Ellis's wife has since died of breast cancer.

"The first thing he said was, 'Karry, this is George Bush. How are you and the kids doing?' " Ellis told the Dispatch.

"His next words were, 'I think of you every day and I pray for you every day.' "

Democracy Watch

Irwin Arieff writes for Reuters: "U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's top aide said on Thursday that he slightly resented the suggestion that 'somehow democracy is President Bush's invention.' "

Bumper Sticker Rage

The Associated Press reports: "A Tampa man apparently enraged by a Bush-Cheney sticker on a woman's SUV faces felony charges after chasing her for miles, allegedly trying to run her off the road and displaying an anti-Bush sign, police said."

© 2005