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Rove's Dismal Legacy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 13, 2007; 1:54 PM

Karl Rove's legacy will not be what he wanted it to be.

The political guru who made President Bush what he is today had hoped to leave behind a permanent Republican ruling majority. Instead, his tenure will stand as an example of how divisiveness and partisanship are not conducive to successful governance.

After years of being lauded as a political genius, Rove nevertheless leaves his party in worse shape than he found it, with his boss profoundly discredited in the eyes of the American people.

When historians look back at Bush's squandered opportunity to unite the country and even the world behind a shared agenda after 9/11, part of the blame will go to Vice President Cheney and the decision to invade Iraq. But part will accrue to Rove for choosing to use national security as a wedge issue.

Why Did He Resign?

"I just think it's time," Rove said, announcing and explaining his decision to resign in an interview with Paul A. Gigot, the editor of The Wall Street Journal's far-right editorial page. The interview was published this morning.

Rove told Gigot he first floated the idea of leaving a year ago and made his decision after White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten recently told senior aides that if they stayed past Labor Day they were committing to stay to the end -- to January 2009.

But is there some other reason? Is there some other shoe about to drop? Some Democrats have been demanding Rove'e resignation ever since the original suspicion -- eventually proved correct -- that he was one of the administration officials who leaked Valerie Plame's secret CIA identity to reporters. And since Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, Rove has been a central figure in any number of House and Senate investigations, most notably the ones relating to last year's firings of several U.S. attorneys who may not have met Rove's standards for partisanship on the job.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux reports that she asked Rove this morning for his reaction to those who say he's being "run out of town." His typically grandiose yet nonresponsive answer, by e-mail: "That sounds like the rooster claiming to have called up the sun."

But as Doug Feaver writes after looking over comments from washingtonpost.com readers: "[M]any of them [are] expressing jubilation at the departure of one they see as evil, [but] many more [are] stating a firm conviction that Rove's statement to the Journal that 'I've got to do this for the sake of my family' is a cover story at best and that the real reason has to be to defend himself from some yet unspecified scandal or legal hassle."

Rove's Many Faces

Rove is in many ways a walking political Rorschach test. Often called the "architect" of Bush's victories, he is considered by many to be "Bush's brain." The president alternately calls him "boy genius" or "turd blossom," a Texas phrase describing a flower that grows in manure.

In a survey of press coverage on Nov. 8, 2004, just after Bush's re-election, I found Rove described as bright, brilliant, capable, charming, funny, generous, ingenious, omnipotent, powerful, shrewd, skilled, thoughtful and visionary. And also: crude, devious, dorky, evil, feared, foolish, mean, repellent and vindictive.

Rove was the prime mover behind -- and the ultimate example of -- the Bush White House's confusion of politics and policy. Bush gave Rove license to subordinate policy decisions to political goals.

To complicate things further, Rove's political goals were sometimes contradictory. He was intellectually devoted to broadening the party's base in order to create a permanent majority. But he was not afraid to use bare-knuckled tactics to play to a narrow but devoted slice of that base.

The Rove-inspired push to partially privatize Social Security was his most ambitious and disastrous attempt to achieve a political realignment. The theory was that creating an "ownership society" would inevitably turn more people into Republicans. But to pass it required Democratic support. It got none.

And an immigration proposal that may well have brought more Hispanics to the Republican Party ran aground on the very sort of right-wing talk-radio nativism that Rove sometimes depended on in his campaign to vilify everything liberal.

Rove's Next Job?

At his brief and emotional joint appearance with Bush this morning, Rove spoke somewhat elliptically about his future: "I look forward to continuing our friendship of 34 years, to being your fierce and committed advocate on the outside, and to the next journey we might make together."

My hunch: Rove will take a lead role in running Bush's presidential library. As Michael Abramowitz wrote in The Washington Post in March, Rove has already started spending a lot of his intellectual energy "trying to put his own distinctive spin on current events and the longer historical view."

Rove's signature political move is that, faced with a challenging political situation, he never plays defense. He attacks the problem head on and tries to co-opt the opposition's position. He does this even when it appears counterintuitive -- case in point, attacking John Kerry on his military record.

What could be more challenging today than spinning the Bush legacy? I fully expect Rove to start taking on Bush's critics with vigor and venom.

What About Cheney?

Rove and Cheney have been Bush's two most intimate and important advisers, more or less splitting the presidential portfolio -- with Cheney taking lead on foreign policy, intelligence and energy and Rove taking the lead on most everything else.

Rove's departure can't help but increase Cheney's clout at the White House. In fact -- who knows? -- Cheney may even have engineered it.

To me, one of the great White House mysteries has been how Rove and Cheney get along.

You may recall that at the obstruction of justice trial of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the defense argued that Libby and Cheney at one point believed that some of Bush's top aides were trying to "scapegoat" Libby, rather than let top Bush political strategist Karl Rove take the fall.

So it's possible they don't get along at all.

What Rove Said

Here's Gigot's write-up of the Rove interview: "He's resigning effective Aug. 31 -- 14 years after he began working with Mr. Bush on his campaign for Texas governor, 10 years after they began planning a White House run, and after 79 months in the political cockpit of a tumultuous presidency. . . .

"What about those who say he's leaving to avoid Congressional scrutiny? 'I know they'll say that,' he says, 'But I'm not going to stay or leave based on whether it pleases the mob.' He also knows he'll continue to be a target, even from afar, since belief in his influence over every Administration decision has become, well, faith-based.

"'I'm a myth. There's the Mark of Rove,' he says, with a bemused air. 'I read about some of the things I'm supposed to have done, and I have to try not to laugh.' He says the real target is Mr. Bush, whom many Democrats have never accepted as a legitimate president and 'never will.'"

Rove has lots of predictions for the future -- even though the White House record for such predictions has been quite poor of late.

Gigot writes: "'He will move back up in the polls,' says Mr. Rove, who interrupts my reference to Mr. Bush's 30% approval rating by saying it's heading close to '40%,' and 'higher than Congress.'

"Looking ahead, he adds, 'Iraq will be in a better place' as the surge continues. Come the autumn, too, 'we'll see in the battle over FISA' -- the wiretapping of foreign terrorists -- 'a fissure in the Democratic Party.' Also in the fall, 'the budget fight will have been fought to our advantage,' helping the GOP restore, through a series of presidential vetoes, its brand name on spending restraint and taxes. . . .

"What about that new GOP William McKinley-style majority he hoped to build -- isn't that now in tatters, as the country tilts leftward on security, economics and the culture? Again, Mr. Rove disagrees. He says young people are if anything more pro-life and free-market than older Americans, and that, despite the difficulties in Iraq, the country doesn't want to be defeated there or in the fight against Islamic terror. He recalls how Democrats thought driving the U.S. out of Vietnam would also help them politically. 'Instead, Democrats have suffered ever since on national security,' he says."

Rove "has no specific job plans, save to write a book on the Bush years, which 'the boss,' as in Mr. Bush, 'has encouraged me to do.' As for what his own White House mistakes have been, Mr. Rove winces and says, 'I'll put my feet up in September and think about that.'"

The Rove Archives

Rove has of course been a key figure in this column ever since it was launched in January 2004. Here are some highlights from Bush's second term.

Back on Feb. 9, 2005, I noted Bush's decision to give Rove a new title: Deputy chief of staff for policy. Or, as I wrote: "Karl Rove is now, officially, in charge of pretty much everything at the White House. But it's mostly just a title change. . . .

"Rove was already officially in charge of strategic planning, political affairs, liaison to outside groups and intergovernmental affairs. Now he'll also be in charge of coordinating the policies of the National Security Council, the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council and the Homeland Security Council."

On June 23, 2005, I wrote about how Rove had become one of the first members of the administration to suggest openly that liberals sympathize with the enemy and are intent on endangering American troops.

On Sept. 15, 2005, I noted that Bush had put Rove in charge of the post-Katrina reconstruction efforts.

And not coincidentally, I wrote on April 20, 2006, that Rove had now lost his official policy portfolio, in what seemed like a rare de facto admission that political goals and competence were possibly in conflict.

On May 18, 2006, I noted that "White House political guru Karl Rove's chirpy optimism is meeting with more than a little skepticism these days, whether it's his insistence that President Bush's dismal approval ratings simply reflect a public 'sour on the war,' or his assurance to House Republicans that Bush's immigration plan is a political winner."

On Oct. 26, 2005, and again on April 28, 2006, I wrote about Rove's furious attempts to wriggle off special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's hook -- including a startling fifth appearance before grand jurors investigating the leak of Plame's identity.

On June 13, 2006, I observed that Rove had successfully avoided criminal charges in the CIA leak investigation. But just because Rove wasn't charged with a crime doesn't mean his conduct meets the standards the public expects from its White House.

On June 22, 2006, I wrote about how Rove was demanding that Republican candidates not distance themselves from Bush's Iraq policy, saying that doing so would be politically suicide.

And then, on Nov. 13, 2006, just days after the elections, I wrote about Rove's epitaphs were suddenly being rewritten. "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."

On March 9, 2007, I noted how "Denis Collins, a juror in the Scooter Libby trial, wasn't just channeling his fellow jurors on Tuesday when he faced the microphones and asked: 'Where's Rove?'

"Collins's point was that Libby, who he had just helped convict on obstruction-of-justice charges, was quite obviously not the only person involved in the politically motivated outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame."

And once it emerged that several U.S. attorneys had been fired last year, potentially for being insufficiently partisan in their enforcement decisions, I wrote about how suspicion quickly turned to Rove.

On March 12 I wrote: "When it comes to Republican political shenanigans, Karl Rove is often the most likely suspect."

On March 23 I explained: "Why are President Bush's Democratic critics so focused on getting White House political guru Karl Rove's testimony regarding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys?

"Because based on Rove's history, the whole thing may well have been his idea -- and may be even more complicated than it initially appeared."

On May 4 I took note of an emergency meeting at the White House where Rove gave top Justice Department officials marching orders that, depending on what you believe, either instructed them to tell the whole truth or to cover up his own involvement.

I wrote on Aug. 2 about how the White House is maintaining that Rove has absolute immunity from congressional oversight.

Here's more on Rove as media critic; and Rove as rapper.

The Green Indictment

In a timely piece in the Atlantic (subscription required) Joshua Green reviews what he calls "The Rove Presidency": "Rove has always cast himself not merely as a campaign manager but as someone with a mind for policy and for history's deeper currents -- as someone, in other words, with the wherewithal not just to exploit the political landscape but to reshape it."

But by late 2005, "the administration was crumbling. Social Security had gone nowhere. Hurricane Katrina, the worsening war in Iraq, and the disastrous nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court shattered the illusion of stern competence that had helped reelect Bush. What surprised everybody was how suddenly it happened; for a while, many devotees of the Cult of Rove seemed not to accept that it had. As recently as last fall, serious journalists were churning out soaring encomiums to Rove and his methods with titles like One Party Country and The Way to Win. In retrospect, everyone should have been focusing less on how those methods were used to win elections and more on why they couldn't deliver once the elections were over.

"The story of why an ambitious Republican president working with a Republican Congress failed to achieve most of what he set out to do finds Rove at center stage. A big paradox of Bush's presidency is that Rove, who had maybe the best purely political mind in a generation and almost limitless opportunities to apply it from the very outset, managed to steer the administration toward disaster."

Green argues that Rove's contempt for Congressional Republicans (not to mention Democrats) and his obsession with redesigning Social Security (even after others recognized it as a lost cause) were key to his overall failure.

Green concludes: "The Bush administration made a virtual religion of the belief that if you act boldly, others will follow in your wake. That certainly proved to be the case with Karl Rove, for a time. But for all the fascination with what Rove was doing and thinking, little attention was given to whether or not it was working and why. This neglect encompasses many people, though one person with far greater consequences than all the others."

The Coverage

Lots more tomorrow, of course. In the meantime, here's coverage from The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Bloomberg.

The Return of the Draft?

Josh White writes in The Washington Post that "the White House war czar said in a radio interview that he believes it makes sense militarily to consider a draft as an option for relieving war-related stresses on U.S. forces.

"Though Bush administration officials and U.S. military leaders have long shunned the notion of reinstating a draft, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, Bush's top military adviser on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said yesterday that the draft has 'always been an option on the table' and that it 'makes sense to certainly consider it.'

"In an interview on National Public Radio's 'All Things Considered,' Lute said the military is competing for a 'very narrow slice' of high school graduates and that the draft is one of several options to prevent the military from breaking. . . .

"National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Lute's comments were consistent with President Bush's stated policy in regard to any potential use of the draft. 'The president believes an all-volunteer military serves the country well, and there is no discussion of returning to a draft,' Johndroe said."

Cheney, Iran and Congress

Matt Stearns writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Taking military action against Iran could put President Bush on a collision course with Congress, leading Democrats and a Republican lawmaker cautioned Friday following Bush's threat of unspecified consequences for alleged Iranian meddling in Iraq.

"It's been the consensus for months among the Democrats who hold the majority that Bush must get congressional authorization before any military strike.

"But the authorization would be no easy sell. Two knowledgeable U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because intelligence on Iran is highly classified, said that the administration so far doesn't have 'smoking-gun' evidence that could be used publicly to justify an air attack."

(The McClatchy story I quoted in Friday's column said Cheney has proposed launching air strikes at suspected training camps in Iraq run by a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. But a corrected version of the story says those suspected camps are actually in Iran.)

Stearns writes about a proposed Senate bill that would prevent money from being used for a strike against Iran without congressional approval. But in the meantime: "Should Bush simply pursue a strike against Iran without seeking congressional authorization, it would cause 'an uproar over here. It would be a serious breach of (the limits on) executive power,' said a military affairs aide to a Democratic senator.

"Nevertheless, Bush and Vice President Cheney take a broad view of executive power, and it's unclear what consequences Bush would face if he were to take action without authorization."

FISA Watch

Jonathan Alter writes for Newsweek: "I hate to sound melodramatic about it, but while everyone was at the beach or 'The Simpsons Movie' on the first weekend in August, the U.S. government shredded the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the one requiring court-approved 'probable cause' before Americans can be searched or spied upon. This is not the feverish imagination of left-wing bloggers and the ACLU. It's the plain truth of where we've come as a country, at the behest of a president who has betrayed his oath to defend the Constitution and with the acquiescence of Democratic congressional leaders who know better. Historians will likely see this episode as a classic case of fear -- both physical and political -- trumping principle amid the ancient tension between personal freedom and national security."

Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "Until September -- and possibly for much longer -- the new law will enable the high-tech collection of foreign communications without judicial scrutiny on a vastly larger scale than previously possible, allowing billions of phone calls and e-mails inside as well as outside the United States to be routinely screened for possible links to terrorism and other security threats.

"Congressional, administration and intelligence officials last week described the events leading up to the approval of this surveillance, including a remarkable series of confrontations that ended with McConnell and the White House outmaneuvering the Democratic-controlled Congress, partly by capitalizing on fresh reports of a growing terrorism threat."

Warrick and Pincus write that Democratic leaders demanded something in return for their approval of a narrow expansion of FISA: "[T]he release of long-sought administration documents describing the controversial warrantless wiretapping program Bush had authorized in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."

The White House said no, and steamrolled the Democrats into approving a vast expansion anyway.

Eric Lichtblau, James Risen and Mark Mazzetti write: "The White House, [Democratic Senator Russel] Feingold said Friday in an interview, 'has identified the one major remaining weakness in the Democratic Party, and that's its unwillingness to stand up to the administration when it's making a power grab regarding terrorism and national security.'

'They have figured out that all they have to do is start talking about an imminent terrorist threat, back it up against a Congressional recess, and they know the Democrats will cave,' he added."

French Weekend

Bob Drogin writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush, who prides himself on building personal ties to foreign leaders, launched a bit of hamburger diplomacy Saturday as he welcomed the newly elected president of France to an informal lunch and private chat at the Bush family compound here."

Anne E. Kornblut writes in The Washington Post: "Might the president at least speak a few words of French, as a gesture toward the new U.S.-French thaw?

"'No, I can't,' Bush said. 'I can barely speak English.'"

Here's the transcript.

Recess Watch

Erin P. Billings writes for Roll Call (subscription required): "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has quietly shelved plans to hold the Senate in pro forma session this month after the White House agreed to refrain from making any executive appointments during the Senators' August break."

Vacation President

Julie Mason writes for the Houston Chronicle: "President Bush tries to set an example for Americans whenever he can, in terms of physical fitness, faith, optimism and a certain overall moral rectitude. He also sets an excellent example on taking vacation.

"On Thursday, Bush left for a weekend in Kennebunkport, Maine, and his family's summer compound, Walker's Point. On Monday, he heads to his Crawford retreat, where he has spent all or part of 418 days of his presidency, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS News White House correspondent and meticulous record-keeper."

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