The Unbelievable Karl Rove

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, November 13, 2006; 2:00 PM

How did Karl Rove get everything so wrong? And shouldn't we take anything he says from this point forward with a big grain of salt?

Rove's divide-and-conquer political strategy, his insistence that Republican candidates embrace the war in Iraq as a campaign issue, his supremely self-assured predictions of victory -- all were proven deeply, even delusionally wrong last week.

His prediction that Republicans would retain both houses of Congress, in particular, is hardly explicable by "bad math" and Mark Foley.

Either Rove lied or he's clueless. Or both. But will that tarnish Rove's reputation in Washington? Maybe not.

Rove, at least for the moment, remains too powerful to be ignored. Plus, he knows how to play the press like a fiddle. Right now, he's on a rare, on-the-record charm offensive -- and so far, it seems to be going pretty well.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "For a man still climbing out of the rubble, Karl Rove seemed in his usual unflappable mood. . . .

"The Architect, as President Bush once called him, has a theory for why the building fell down. 'Get me the one-pager!' he cried out to an aide, who promptly delivered a single sheet of paper that had been updated almost hourly since the midterm elections with a series of statistics explaining that the 'thumping' Bush took was not such a thumping after all.

"The theory is this: The building's infrastructure was actually quite sound. It was bad luck and seasonal shifts in the winds that blew out the walls -- complacent candidates, an ill-timed Mark Foley page scandal and the predictable cycles of history. But the foundation is fine: 'The Republican philosophy is alive and well and likely to reemerge in the majority in 2008.'

"The rest of Washington might think Tuesday's elections were a repudiation of Rove's brand of politics, but Rove does not. . . .

"Rove's brand of politics aims to sharpen differences with the opposition, energize the conservative base and micro-target voters to pick off selected parts of the other side's constituency. As he has in past elections, Rove designed a strategy to paint Democrats as weak on national security and terrorism, the 'party of cut and run.'

"In an expansive interview last week, Rove said that strategy was working until the House page sex scandal involving ex-representative Foley (R-Fla.) put the Republican campaign 'back on its heels,' as he put it. 'We were on a roll, and it stopped it,' he said. 'It revived all the stuff about Abramoff and added to it.' . . .

"As for Rove's 'supreme confidence' that Republicans would keep both houses of Congress, Baker writes: "It turns out that Rove is mortal after all, and not always so good at math."

Baker finds that few White House aides "believe Rove will lose his job. Instead, he will turn to figuring out a policy and political agenda that can salvage the last two years of the Bush presidency."

Mike Allen blogs for Time: "'The profile of corruption in the exit polls was bigger than I'd expected,' Rove tells Time. 'Abramoff, lobbying, Foley and Haggard [the disgraced evangelical leader] added to the general distaste that people have for all things Washington, and it just reached critical mass.'

"Exit polls showed heavy discontent with the course of the war, and Bush announced the departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the next day. But Rove took comfort in results of the Connecticut Senate race between the anti-war Democratic nominee, Ned Lamont, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who ran as an independent after losing the Democratic primary over his support for the war. 'Iraq mattered,' Rove says. 'But it was more frustration than it was an explicit call for withdrawal. If this was a get-out-now call for withdrawal, then Lamont would not have been beaten by Lieberman. Iraq does play a role, but not the critical, central role.'"

And here is Rove's extraordinary explanation to Allen of his pre-election predictions:

"[H]e does not believe his data let him down. 'My job is not to be a prognosticator,' he said. 'My job is not to go out there and wring my hands and say, "We're going to lose." I'm looking at the data and seeing if I can figure out, Where can we be? I told the president, "I don't know where this is going to end up. But I see our way clear to Republican control." '"

So the next time Rove predicts a rosy scenario for Republicans -- which he does all the time and which, contrary to his protestations, does appear to be a significant part of his job -- could someone remind him that he has publicly acknowledged that he has no credibility in that arena?

Richard Wolffe writes in Newsweek that even Bush figured out it was going to be a bad night before Rove was ready to admit anything.

Writes Wolffe: "He wasn't just trying to psych out the media and the opposition. He believed his 'metrics' were far superior to plain old polls. . . .

"Based on his models, he forecast a loss of 12 to 14 seats in the House -- enough to hang on to the majority. Rove placed so much faith in his figures that, after the elections, he planned to convene a panel of Republican political scientists -- to study just how wrong the polls were."

Even Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman implicitly criticized Rove. Wolffe writes that Mehlman "feared that many inside the party were relying too much on technology, like voter databases, and had lost sight of the bigger picture: that voters were turning against them."

Dick Polman blogs for the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Whether President Bush's political guru truly believes his fact-challenged attempts to explain away what happened last Tuesday, or whether he's just spinning out of self-interest (to hang onto his ebbing genius aura, for instance), is almost immaterial. What matters is that the most influential strategist in the Bush White House has publicly chosen to play bad cop to Bush's good cop. Bush is talking magnanimously about reaching across the aisle to the victorious Democrats -- while his political adviser is saying that the Democratic win was no big deal."

And, Polman notes: "In citing the GOP corruption issue, and characterizing it as merely 'all things Washington,' Rove skipped over his own central role. One of the most underreported stories in recent months was the autumn resignation of Rove aide Susan Ralston, who had acted as a frequent messenger between the White House and superlobbyist/convicted felon Jack Abramoff."

As Deborah Orin-Eilbeck writes in the New York Post: "No one's calling Karl Rove 'Boy Genius' anymore. After last week's election debacle, some Republicans wonder aloud if it's time for President Bush's political guru to follow Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and walk the plank.

"The final blow for many Republicans was President Bush's decision to fire Rumsfeld right after the election -- instead of a few months before, when it might have helped save the House and Senate.

"'Everyone knew the election was about Iraq except them,' says a disgusted GOP strategist, noting that it was Rove's job to make sure Bush knew."

Rod Dreher writes in the Dallas Morning News: "Old CW: Mr. Rove's strategy of winning elections by playing hard to the GOP base proves him a political genius. New CW: How could this knucklehead have allowed the president to alienate so many swing voters?"

Oversight Ahoy!

James Glanz, David Johnston and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "Oversight, the power wielded by congressional committees to demand information and internal documents and to haul executive branch officials to hearings, by subpoena if necessary, is reverberating through Congress as a Democratic battle cry. . . .

"In the Senate, Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is in line to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that seeking a new strategy for Iraq would be his primary focus, but that he would also look carefully at military contracting. . . .

"The Appropriations Committee, which is likely to be led by Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, is likely to review more closely spending like large supplementary requests for Iraq and Afghanistan. . . .

"The Senate Judiciary Committee has staff members trying to compile a complete list of unanswered questions.

"Some Democrats said before the election that they would inquire more deeply into some issues, asking for fuller accountability among senior officers and civilian officials at the Pentagon over the harsh treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

"'I think the accountability for Abu Ghraib has not yet been accomplished in terms of finding out who was involved, at what level,' said Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island."

Erica Werner writes for the Associated Press: "The Democratic congressman who will investigate the Bush administration's running of the government says there are so many areas of possible wrongdoing, his biggest problem will be deciding which ones to pursue.

"There's the response to Hurricane Katrina, government contracting in Iraq and on homeland security, decision-making at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, and allegations of corporate profiteering, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., told the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

"'I'm going to have an interesting time because the Government Reform Committee has jurisdiction over everything,' Waxman said Friday, three days after his party's capture of Congress put him in line to chair the panel. 'The most difficult thing will be to pick and choose.'"

Ronald Brownstein writes for the Los Angeles Times: "Notwithstanding occasional dissent, the GOP Congress saw itself as a supporting member of the White House team, almost as if both were part of a parliamentary system. In that role, Capitol Hill Republicans allowed Bush to set the national agenda and minimized congressional oversight that might have embarrassed the administration. . . .

""[Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid anticipates more aggressive congressional oversight, starting with Iraq. Outgoing Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a close White House ally, slow-walked a promised investigation into whether intelligence data supported the administration's prewar public claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Roberts also structured the inquiry in ways that constrained the danger to Bush; most important, the committee did not compel senior administration officials to answer questions under oath.

"Now Reid expects John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who will head the Senate Intelligence Committee, to briskly conclude a comprehensive study. 'I think not only as part of good government, but as part of history, that investigation should be completed,' he says."

Iraq Watch

Bush, Cheney and national security adviser Steve Hadley met with members of the Iraq Study Group this morning.

Michael Abramowitz and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "Those familiar with the panel's work predict that the ultimate recommendations will not appear novel and that there are few, if any, good options left facing the country. Many of the ideas reportedly being considered -- more aggressive regional diplomacy with Syria and Iran, greater emphasis on training Iraqi troops, or focusing on a new political deal between warring Shiites and Sunni -- have either been tried or have limited chances of success, in the view of many experts on Iraq."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Mark Mazzetti write in the New York Times that Democrats have declared that "a phased redeployment of troops would be their top priority when the new Congress convenes in January. . . .

"The White House signaled a willingness to listen to the Democrats' proposals, with Joshua B. Bolten, the chief of staff, saying in two television appearances that the president was open to 'fresh ideas' and a 'fresh look.' But Mr. Bolten said he could not envision the White House signing on to a plan setting a timetable for the withdrawal of troops.

"'You know, we're willing to talk about anything,' he said on 'This Week.' 'I don't think we're going to be receptive to the notion there's a fixed timetable at which we automatically pull out, because that could be a true disaster for the Iraqi people. . . .

"Dan Bartlett, counselor to Mr. Bush, said on Fox News that the president had directed the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Peter Pace, to assess strategy in Iraq and would be open to listening to 'good suggestions,' regardless of where they came from.

"But Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary, said in an interview that Mr. Bush remained adamant that decisions about how to deploy troops would be made by military commanders in Iraq.

"'That didn't change overnight on November 7,' Ms. Perino said."

Here's the transcript of Bolten's interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN:

"BLITZER: A couple of days before the election, the vice president, Dick Cheney, said this to ABC News. He said: 'The president has made clear what his objective is, it's victory in Iraq, and full speed ahead on that basis. And that's exactly what we are going to do.'

"And the question was irrespective of what happened in the elections. Here is the question. Is that statement from the vice president still applicable?

"BOLTEN: Sure. Everybody's objective here is to succeed in Iraq."

Here's Bolten on ABC News. Here's Bartlett on Fox News.

So let me make sure I have this straight: Bush is for "full speed ahead" in Iraq, as well as a complete re-evaluation of his plans; and nothing is off the table, except for the many things that are not negotiable.

Isn't this precisely the sort of nonsensical rhetoric about Iraq that presumably turned voters off on Tuesday?

Poll Watch

Marcus Mabry writes for Newsweek: "President Bush's job approval rating has fallen to just 31 percent, according to the new Newsweek Poll. . . .

"Worst of all, most Americans are writing off the rest of Bush's presidency; two thirds (66 percent) believe he will be unable to get much done, up from 56 percent in a mid-October poll; only 32 percent believe he can be effective. . . .

"And there's massive support for much of the Democratic Congress's presumed agenda."

The Honeymoon

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service with the question on everyone's mind in Washington: "Bipartisan peace in our times, or temporary ceasefire . . .

"'Both sides have been magnificent so far,' Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, said at a Friday seminar. 'Everybody's bipartisan. It's going to last at least another half hour.' "

The change in tone, at least as of this writing, is truly incredible. Remember that until the middle of last week, anyone who disagreed with Bush was an idiot or an appeaser -- and sure as heck wasn't welcome anywhere near the White House.

On Thursday, Bush graciously hosted incoming House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer. On Friday, he welcomed Reid and Sen. Dick Durbin.

Warm words were exchanged by all -- or, rather, almost all. Cheney reportedly didn't say a word during the Pelosi lunch, and sat glumly on the couch as the others spoke.

But Cheney may have gotten the last laugh. In prepared remarks after a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Bush threw down one potential gauntlet, calling on the lame-duck Congress to pass a warrantless wiretapping plan opposed by Democrats. And later that day, Bush renominated John R. Bolton to be United Nations ambassador.

Bolton Watch

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "President Bush has pledged to be a bipartisan consensus builder now that Democrats are to control Congress, and since Wednesday he has made conciliatory gestures. The question now is whether Mr. Bush is ready to junk all of his make-nice pledges in order to keep John R. Bolton at the United Nations. . . .

"[W]ith the announcement on Thursday by Senator Lincoln Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, that he would deny Republicans on the committee the last vote needed to send Mr. Bolton's nomination to the full Senate, some administration officials privately acknowledge that Mr. Bolton's chances of confirmation are 'nil,' one State Department official said. . . .

"In this situation, the usual next step would be for Mr. Bolton to withdraw from consideration and for Mr. Bush to nominate a less polarizing candidate. . . .

"But Mr. Bolton is keen to stay at the helm of the American team at the United Nations, administration officials say, and White House officials, including Mr. Bush's counsel, Harriet E. Miers, have been looking into whether the president can somehow bypass the Senate and keep him there. Administration officials said Vice President Dick Cheney was backing exploration of such a move.

"Mr. Bolton 'could be named acting permanent representative or deputy U.N. ambassador or something else that doesn't require confirmation,' a senior administration official said. . . .

"Such a move would almost certainly enflame relations between the White House and the ascendant Democrats and would probably kill any further talk about bipartisan cooperation."

The Lie

Howard Kurtz writes in Friday's Washington Post: "Six days before the election, Bush told three wire-service reporters in an interview that Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney were doing 'fantastic' jobs.

"'You see them staying with you until the end?' asked Terence Hunt of the Associated Press.

"'I do,' Bush replied.

"'So you're expecting Rumsfeld, Secretary Rumsfeld, to stay on the rest of your time here?' asked Steve Holland of Reuters.

"'Yes, I am,' the president said."

Seven days later, at the press conference during which he announced Rumsfeld's resignation, Bush acknowledged he had misled the reporters. He explained that "the only way to answer that question and to get you on to another question was to give you that answer." See my Thursday column for more.

But at Thursday's press briefing, press secretary Tony Snow insisted Bush was being honest when he said that he expected Rumsfeld to stay.

Snow: "At that point, although there had been conversations about how to proceed at the Pentagon, there had been no job offer to Bob Gates, there was no clear sense that there would be a resignation pending, and therefore, would you expect the president to say, 'Don't know, let me get back to you, trying to think that one through.' The fact is, at that point, that reflected his thinking. But on the other hand, there were conversations going on."

Q: "Cut and dried question, Was it an honest statement?

Snow: "It was an honest statement."

Here's Josh Bolten going round and round with George Stephanopoulos on ABC yesterday:

Stephanopoulos: "At the time by the president's own admission he had a series of discussions with Secretary Rumsfeld. Bob Gates was coming to Crawford just a few days later on Sunday and according to several reports, you were leading a process to at least consider the replacement of Secretary Rumsfeld. Given all that, how could the president say he was expecting Secretary Rumsfeld to stay the rest of the term?"

Bolten: "He was unless he found a suitable replacement. He had started the conversations with Secretary Rumsfeld, and they were -- they were in the process of agreeing that fresh eyes would be needed on the problem. They did not come to that agreement until after the interview that the president had."

Stephanopoulos: "But he was searching for a replacement, actively searching for a replacement then."

Bolten: "He was talking about it. . . . The president was not going to replace Secretary Rumsfeld unless he was confident that he had a very strong replacement available to him to put in place."

Stephanopoulos: "So are you saying that if Bob Gates would have said no the president would have simply stopped the process?"

Bolten: "Yes, I am saying that if -- if Bob Gates had turned out to be the wrong guy, most important, based on the conversation that the president was going to have with him, I do not expect that the president would have replaced Secretary Rumsfeld. And then. . . . "

Stephanopoulos: "That day. But Secretary Rumsfeld would not have served till the end of the term. The president was actively looking to replace him."

Bolten: "I don't know that."

The topic also came up in Bolten's interview on CNN, and Bartlett's on Fox.

John Heilprin writes for the Associated Press that Bolten said "that Bush's misdirection to the press was justified by military need.

"'If he had said something other than what he said, if he had been equivocal about his support for Secretary Rumsfeld, that would have started an outbreak of then warranted speculation about Secretary Rumsfeld's tenure,' Bolten said. 'It would have undermined Secretary Rumsfeld's ability to lead the military in a time of war.'"

So if anyone thought the White House was at least going to be honest about being dishonest, think again.

Then again, there was a tiny bit of refreshing candor from Bartlett, who allowed that the president was concerned with appearances.

"Think about the signal it would have sent two weeks before the election if President Bush, desperate to change political polls, would have jettisoned his secretary of defense. It would have looked desperate," Bartlett said.

Father Knows Best

Michael Duffy writes in Time: "The Greeks believed that the gods visit the sins of the fathers upon their sons. But when it comes to the Bush family and Iraq, the tragedy runs from stem to root. And so over the next few weeks, key members of Bush's father's vaunted foreign policy team -- the real A-team of the Republican foreign policy establishment -- will step in and conduct what amounts to a family intervention. . . .

"The biggest question is how the object of the intervention will react. As one senior official in the 41 White House says of the president, 'He can fight this and turn into a constantly warring figure, or he can turn back into the friendly wise guy who gets along with everyone. The latter will serve him much better.'"

Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "Nine months after invading Iraq, President Bush told an interviewer that he did not turn to his father for strength. 'There is a higher father that I appeal to,' he said. Nearly three years later, Bush may be appealing to his earthly father as well. Or at least to his people."

Jon Meacham writes in a Newsweek cover story that as of last week, "Dad's team was back -- a remarkable course correction in the political life of the son and, quite possibly, in the life of the nation."

Here's Howard Kurtz on CNN, talking to Ricks:

Kurtz: "Now, turning to the president's nominee to succeed Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, there's an emerging storyline because of Gates and because of Jim Baker, who heads this bipartisan study commission in Iraq, and others who worked for Bush 41's administration that they are kind of riding to the rescue -- in fact, 'Newsweek's' cover-- if we could put it up there -- talks about 'Father Knows Best.' There's the headline.

"Is that storyline just an easy, cheap Oedipal way for the press to characterize what's going on, or is there something to it?

Ricks: "Well, just because it's easy and cheap doesn't mean it's wrong."

More About Gates

David E. Sanger and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "President Bush selected Robert M. Gates as his new defense secretary in part to close a long-running rift between the Defense Department and the State Department that has hobbled progress on Iraq, keeping the two agencies at odds on issues ranging from reconstruction to detaining terrorism suspects, according to White House officials and members of Mr. Gates's inner circle. . . .

"While Mr. Gates, a former director of central intelligence, had long been considered for a variety of roles, over the past two months Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, quietly steered the White House toward replacing Donald H. Rumsfeld with Mr. Gates, who had worked closely with Ms. Rice under the first President Bush."

But is it too late? And how will Gates circumnavigate Cheney?

Sanger and Shane write: "Mr. Cheney worked for years to protect Mr. Rumsfeld, who had hired him for his first government job, and the top echelons of the Defense Department have been peppered with Cheney protégés."

And as for all that conventional wisdom? Sanger and Shane write that the White House objects. "'It dumbs this whole thing down to say that this is the victory of the pragmatists over the ideologues,' said Daniel Bartlett, the president's counselor, who took part in the secret decisions to oust Mr. Rumsfeld and bring in Mr. Gates. 'We are going to be practical in some respects, and ideological in others.'"

Froomkin Watch

I'll be off tomorrow, speaking to a class at the University of Pennsylvania. The column will return on Wednesday, but then will take a 10-day Thanksgiving break, resuming on Monday, November 27.

Low Expectations

Here's the text of Bush's Saturday radio address: "Whatever your opinion of the outcome, all Americans can take pride in the example our democracy sets for the world by holding elections even in a time of war."

Steve Benen blogs: "We should be 'proud' that the federal government didn't cancel our elections? That the Bush administration didn't use the war as an excuse to interrupt the democratic process? . . .

"[T]his seems to have 'soft bigotry of low expectations' written all over it."

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive