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Rove's Dilemma

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 15, 2007; 12:40 PM

Karl Rove and President Bush have been essentially of one mind for as long as Bush has been on the national stage. So Rove's abrupt separation from the White House doesn't just leave Bush missing his ostensible "brain" -- it also puts Rove in unfamiliar territory: His goals aren't necessarily the same as his longtime client's.

Rove is widely expected to channel his prodigious energies into one last campaign -- this one to shape history. But he's going to have to decide what's more important: Bush's legacy or his own? They're not necessarily the same thing anymore.

Rove's tarnished reputation as a political genius would be considerably rehabilitated if the Republican Party, against all odds, managed to keep control of the White House in 2008. But if there's any chance of that happening, the GOP is going to have to run against Bush's legacy almost as aggressively as the Democrats are.

So if Rove as expected cleaves to his unfailing defense of everything Bush -- and if anybody in his party listens to him -- he may end up congealing the prevailing wisdom of the last several days: That he was, in the end, a colossal failure.

Bush as Albatross

At this point, it's practically a given that Republican candidates will have to distance themselves from Bush to have any chance of winning in 2008.

Edward Luce wrote recently in the Financial Times: "The unpopularity of America's 43rd president -- even among diehard church-going Republicans of the Midwest -- is more than just a background irritant for Republicans vying to succeed him in 2009. Mr Bush is a millstone around their necks.

"Unlike the Democratic party, which is significantly outshining its rival in fundraising and in the polls, Republicans have a longstanding culture of deference towards their leader in the White House. That works when the president is Ronald Reagan, who remained popular until he stepped down. . . .

"But when their president is sinking in the eyes of the majority, it presents a sharp dilemma. 'We are caught in a bind,' says a senior staffer on one of the campaigns. 'We cannot attack George Bush because we would be punished for disloyalty by the party base. And we cannot endorse him because that would be suicide. So we tip-toe around.'"

Ronald Brownstein wrote in his Los Angeles Times column last month: "Whatever Bush does in Iraq, Republicans next year will probably need to paddle away from him much more energetically than they have so far."

In his Washington Post opinion column, David S. Broder last week warned Republican candidates not to forget a key fact: "The one thing on which the polls are clearest today is that this country is ready to turn the page on the Bush-Cheney experience. If ever there has been an administration that has outstayed its welcome, exhausted its energies and spent most of its original ideas, it is this one. People on the inside are holding on by their thumbs, and the country's patience is about exhausted."

And on the Chris Matthews Show recently, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks let the secret slip out: "You got to remember a lot of Republicans hate Bush," he told Matthews. "They think Bush is incompetent and is destroying their party. . . .

"I was just up in New Hampshire. The questions were -- the questions, 'We've got a draft dodger in the White House.' These were Republicans talking about a Republican. 'We've got to restore some honesty to the White House.' Republican talking about a Republican president. The atmosphere in the Republican Party is not pro-Bush."

Rove Still in High Spirits

Rove sat down with Mike Allen of the Politico for an hour yesterday and appeared unbowed by all the negative reviews in the wake of his resignation. (See my Monday and Tuesday columns for a sampler.)

"Tributes, even from Republicans, have been rare and almost all were balanced with qualifiers," Allen notes. "But holding forth at Ninfa's restaurant, Rove was unswerving and even a tad mischievous as he previewed the case he will make with conservatives and scholars in his new role as burnisher-in-chief of a beleaguered president's legacy.

"Despite Bush's lagging poll numbers, national unease about the war, the GOP ouster from congressional leadership last year and a 2008 electoral climate that seems to offer few positives, Rove said he believes history eventually will vindicate Bush. One major reason: improvements in reading and math scores since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act -- a piece of legislation that even leading Republicans now view as flawed.

"But Rove acknowledged that a positive view is probably decades away -- and said Bush knows it.

"'I'll rant and rave about the latest editorial abuse from The New York Times and its gross inaccuracies, and the president will say to me, "Don't worry about it: History will get it right, and we'll both be dead,"' Rove said. 'I hope for a long life, but history will judge him kindly."

Rove and Rahm

While savaging Democrats generally, Rove apparently sees one kindred soul across the aisle. As Allen writes, Rove "lavished praised on the House's No. 4 Democrat, Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who was the party's House campaign chairman in 2006.

"'I think he did a very good job last year,' Rove said. 'He's smart, he's relentless, he's tough. For a member of Congress, he can be awfully mean, which is needed in a position like that sometimes -- chairman of the campaign committee."

Naftali Bendavid blogs for the Tribune Washington bureau that Rove and Emanuel are "two masters of the psychology of politics. . . .

"In addition to instilling confidence in Democratic candidates, the Chicago congressman sought to get inside the heads of Republicans, to persuade them a killer was coming for them. Just as Rove panicked the Democrats, Emanuel wanted to strike fear into the hearts of Republicans."

Rove Derangement Syndrome

Rove's first broadcast interview today will find him in the warm embrace of right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Here's Limbaugh yesterday, railing against the coverage of what he calls the "Drive-By Media:"

"Drive-By meanness is over the top on Karl Rove. The vitriol and hatred was just dripping from Drive-By coverage last night. The level of meanness that you will hear in their voices is staggering. We have Terry Moran of ABC, Chris Lehman of Congressional Quarterly -- this is a montage coming up -- Chris Matthews, Jessica Yellin at CNN, David Wright at ABC, James Moore at PMSNBC, David Gergen, David 'Rodham' Gergen . . . Jim Axelrod of CBS. Dan Abrams of PMSNBC. They're all talking here about Karl Rove's departure.

"MORAN : Divisiveness! Anger! Ruthlessness! That's what you call 'Rovian politics.'

"LEHMAN: The news to most Americans here isn't so much that Karl Rove is leaving, as that Karl Rove has a family.

"MATTHEWS: He was knighting the guy, and he said he was going to take care of this bum.

"YELLIN: The dark prince of the Bush administration.

"WRIGHT: Many saw his fingerprints in the attack on John McCain's character; 2004 witnessed a similar sustained attack on John Kerry's war record

"MOORE: There is a certain part of this guy that is pathological.

"GERGEN: An evil one who manipulated politics. . . .

"AXELROD: Karl Rove is packing his bags . . . and leaving the party in tatters.

"ABRAMS: If Karl Rove had been a professional wrestler, they might have called him The Constitutional Crippler.

"RUSH: (laughing) You just have to laugh at this. You get offended and mad at it, but after that, you just have to laugh at it. . . . The only reason these people hate Rove is because he outsmarted them at nearly every turn, and they hate that. You know, power is theirs by birthright. Rove, in their minds, is the one person that came along and took it away from them and kept it away from them for all these years, and they just despise him. They are the smartest people in the room, and to be outsmarted by rubes like Rove from Texas, and Bush, just offends them all to hell."

Small Ball

The White House press office this morning is touting a Fox News Special Report last night on the White House's upcoming agenda. A White House e-mail quotes reporter Bret Baier ticking off a whole series of initiatives, and then spokeswoman Dana Perino as saying: "There is enough time to get a lot done, but we can't afford to waste a single day."

But U.S. News notes that "later on the broadcast, during a roundtable discussion, columnist Charles Krauthammer said, 'It's over.' Talk of 'an ambitious agenda . . . is absurd, there is no agenda.'"

Jim Rutenberg and Steven Lee Myers write in the New York Times: "On Tuesday, several White House officials acknowledged with unusual candor that with just 17 months remaining in Mr. Bush's final term, there is little time for new ideas. Nor is there much time to realize the long list of unaccomplished presidential proposals.

"'There's no question the window is narrowing,' said Joel D. Kaplan, the deputy chief of staff for policy. 'But,' he added, 'it's not closed.'

"Mr. Kaplan said the president would seek to use executive orders and other administrative powers aggressively to push his agenda where Congress has not, just as he did last week in directing several agencies to strengthen enforcement against employers of illegal immigrants, which he had initially sought to do through the failed immigration bill. . . .

"But aides acknowledged that Mr. Bush's more ambitious goals would still require the approval of Congress. The Democratic majority is likely to fight Mr. Bush on budgetary matters and, perhaps most important at the White House, challenge him over his conduct of the war in Iraq."

Karl Who?

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Not to be 'ungenerous or self-centered,' said White House Counselor Ed Gillespie, but he thinks some people overestimate Karl Rove's importance. After all, Gillespie pointed out, during the 2004 presidential campaign he headed the Republican National Committee, the heart of the party's operations. And he talked to Rove only 'from time to time.'

"Another White House official, asked what it would mean to lose the legendary strategist, whose departure was announced Monday, recalled that Rove had started the staff's 'ice-cream Fridays.'

"As one of the most powerful and controversial presidential advisors in modern history heads out the door, the White House is engaged in an unusual game of double spin: While President Bush bear-hugged Rove and showered him with praise in a South Lawn ceremony, officials like Gillespie quietly began to whittle down Rove's image as the man who played a key role in almost every major decision of the Bush era. . . .

"White House aides deny they are engaging in spin. Spokeswoman Dana Perino said she was just trying to humanize Rove when she told a Fox News interviewer about his creation of the ice-cream tradition. And she said any attempt to downplay Rove's role was only meant to counteract misimpressions fostered by the news media and Rove's critics."

The Return of Karen Hughes?

U.S. News reports that "insiders" are saying "that Karen Hughes, one of Bush's closest confidantes, could be reassigned from the State Department back to the White House, where she served as communications czar during Bush's first term."

Editorial Watch

The Kansas City Star: "The mistake was in bringing Karl Rove into the White House in the first place. A political strategist who specializes in cheap rhetoric and low blows, Rove should have been kept at a safe distance by President Bush when it came to actually running the country.

"Instead, Bush allowed him free rein in the upper echelons of his administration. There Rove tainted important policy decisions with relentless political calculation. . . .

"[W]ith Democrats running Congress and the unpleasant consequences of the administration's many ill-advised policies now rolling in, the White House has been forced into a more defensive and sometimes even conciliatory role.

"And that's just not Rove's style. So he's off to Texas, leaving the messes he made for someone else to clean up."

The Toledo Blade: "Universally, the theories of why Mr. Rove is leaving place no stock in his publicly stated reason -- to spend more time with his family."

The Blade considers some more likely alternatives; his departure may have been "a careful tweak to improve the party's image by reducing the heat generated by his presence inside the White House. . . .

"Another theory of why Mr. Rove is leaving now posits a President and a Republican Party in serious trouble with the electorate. The image evoked is that of Count Dracula racing across the icy tundra in his cart with the wolves close behind, perhaps kicking off a victim to distract his pursuers."

The Winston-Salem Journal: "If President Bush is to salvage anything from the rest of his administration, it will require the kind of leadership of which Rove has been incapable since he came onto the national stage."

Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot: "A man who it was once thought would usher the nation into a generation of Republican domination now leaves to spend time with his family, write a book and ponder how to justify all that went wrong."

Opinion Watch

William McKenzie writes in his Dallas Morning News opinion column: "The fact is, if you're running for president, you want a guy like Karl Rove on your staff. The man eats, sleeps and breathes politics . . . but Mr. Bush then erred by bringing his small facts-and-big picture guy into the White House.

"Mr. Rove could have advised and strategized from the outside, the role James Carville played for Mr. Clinton."

One problem, McKenzie writes, was Rove's personality: "You've probably met someone like this -- funny and entertaining but who must prevail. Call that person a likable bully.

"When Mr. Rove joined the White House staff to stay close to the president and show off his intellectual wonkishness, his domineering style came with him. People like that suck the air out of the room, particularly when they've masterminded two winning presidential campaigns.

"They also have a tendency to make sure few others get close to the big guy, in this case the one who sits in the Oval Office. That last part can be deadly because it isolates a president, as several Bush officials and supporters say he has done."

Carl P. Leubsdorf writes in the Dallas Morning News that "the closeness of Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove has created some doubts where the strategist's influence ended.

"That is especially true in view of the fact that Mr. Rove's D.C. tactics resemble those he employed in Texas, while Mr. Bush's presidency has often seemed so different from the 'compassionate conservative' image his governorship fostered."

Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column that "with Rove's leadership, the White House undertook a very specific kind of political outreach. Rather than seeking to realign the overall electorate with a message and agenda that appealed broadly across party lines, Rove targeted appeals at niche groups, such as the religiously devout African Americans who were courted with grants from the White House initiative to fund faith-based social services. Rove took it as a given that Bush could never convert the broad mass of voters skeptical of him, and he increasingly portrayed the intense opposition the president provoked as a badge of honor -- proof that Bush was making tough decisions. . . .

"After Bush's disastrous second term, it's difficult to imagine that another president will try to govern with so much resistance to compromise and so little concern for opinions outside his coalition. Rove often maneuvered with great skill (and better humor than he's credited with), but he leaves Washington as a brilliant tactician in the service of a fundamentally flawed strategy."

Harold Meyerson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Decades from now, historians will have trouble fathoming why Karl Rove's contemporaries hailed him as a genius. An expert practitioner of wedge politics, in the tradition of Lee Atwater? Sure. But architect of an enduring Republican majority? The great realigner? What were the pundits of 2002 and 2004 smoking?"

Garrison Keillor writes for Salon that "what I find eerie about the man is his inexhaustible self-confidence and optimism. . . . According to some accounts, his positive outlook was responsible for the Current Occupant's sunny disposition in the face of bad news. No wonder Mr. Rove's nickname was Turd Blossom. He could put fecal matter on his lapel and call it a boutonniere. . . .

"Mr. Rove spoke with great confidence about beans and tomatoes and showed slides and got standing ovations in many places, but he didn't get the crops in. Goodbye and good riddance."

Clinton strategist James Carville writes in the Financial Times: "The evidence is now pretty conclusive that Mr Rove may have lost more than just an election in 2006. He has lost an entire generation for the Republican party. . . .

"If the trends hold, the one thing that we can be sure of is that Mr Rove's political grave will receive no lack of irrigation from future Republicans."

Rove's Book

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "Karl Rove could score millions for a book on his Bush White House years - but only if he'll dish dirt that might rattle the cages of longtime colleagues, publishing experts said yesterday. . . .

"'The advance could be high-six or even seven figures if Rove is willing to talk. If he's not willing to say much that we don't already know, I'd put the advance worth $75,000 or so,' said Washington book agent Diane Nine. 'As one publisher pointed out, he has Bush's 'blessing' for the book, which leads some to believe he won't spill much.'"

Sridhar Pappu writes in The Washington Post that writing a tell-all "would seem contrary to the mythological Rove we've come not to know." And then there's this other problem: "You couldn't blame anyone for questioning the veracity of Rove's accounts."

Rove's Regret

In his Wall Street Journal interview on Saturday, Rove was asked what his own White House mistakes have been. His response: "I'll put my feet up in September and think about that."

Al Kamen writes in today's Washington Post: "Asked by our colleague, Peter Baker, if there is one, just one, thing he really, really regrets, Rove said: 'I regret accepting that invitation from CNN and going to that stupid dinner and getting turned into MC Rove.'"

Rove's Plans

R.G. Ratcliffe and Clay Robison write in the Houston Chronicle that yes, indeed, Rove is planning on making Texas his home again -- but not right away.

"'I don't know what I'll do next, except that we want to spend more time in Texas and make our way back there within a few years. I expect to write a book, make a few speeches and take some time to figure out what the future will hold,' Rove said in an e-mail sent to Texas friends."

Iraq Watch

Near the end of their Los Angeles Times story about what Gen. David H. Petraeus is expected to propose in a September status report, Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel have this astonishing revalation: "Despite Bush's repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government."

No wonder Bush is cutting short his September trip to Asia.

"How to deal in the report with the lack of national reconciliation between Iraq's warring sects has created some tension within the White House," Barnes and Spiegel write.

"During internal White House discussion of a July interim report, some officials urged the administration to claim progress in policy areas such as legislation to divvy up Iraq's oil revenue, even though no final agreement had been reached. Others argued that such assertions would be disingenuous.

"'There were some in the drafting of the report that said, 'Well, we can claim progress,' ' the administration official said. 'There were others who said: "Wait a second. Sure we can claim progress, but it's not credible to . . . just neglect the fact that it's had no effect on the ground." '"

Meanwhile, Leila Fadel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Despite U.S. claims that violence is down in the Iraqi capital, U.S. military officers are offering a bleak picture of Iraq's future, saying they've yet to see any signs of reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims despite the drop in violence.

"Without reconciliation, the military officers say, any decline in violence will be temporary and bloodshed could return to previous levels as soon as the U.S. military cuts back its campaign against insurgent attacks. . . .

"And while top U.S. officials insist that 50 percent of the capital is now under effective U.S. or government control, compared with 8 percent in February, statistics indicate that the improvement in violence is at best mixed."

David S. Cloud wrote in yesterday's New York Times that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates "is shaping up to be a pivotal figure in the debate. As an outsider who took over at the Pentagon only last December, and who has admirers in both parties, he may be the one person with the clout to persuade either President Bush or the Democratic-led Congress to compromise.

"He is also the administration official whose views are the least understood."

Also in yesterday's Times, John F. Burns wrote: "Mr. Bush has often sounded as though his Iraq commander offers a fount of credibility on the war that can compensate for the president's poor poll ratings. In war speeches, he cites General Petraeus like a talisman. . . .

"But for General Petraeus, being cast as the president's white knight has been a mixed blessing. While he talks with Mr. Bush once or twice a week, in interviews he depicts himself as owing loyalty as much to Congress as the White House and stresses the downside, as well as the upside, of the military effort here.

"His view, he says, is that he is 'on a very important mission that derives from a policy made by folks at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, with the advice and consent and resources provided by folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. And in September, that's how I'm going to approach it.' Whether to fight on here, he says, is a 'big, big decision, a national decision,' one that belongs to elected officials, not a field general."

Death Penalty Watch

Richard B. Schmitt wrote in yesterday's Los Angeles Times: "The Justice Department is putting the final touches on regulations that could give Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales important new sway over death penalty cases in California and other states, including the power to shorten the time that death row inmates have to appeal convictions to federal courts.

"The rules implement a little-noticed provision in last year's reauthorization of the Patriot Act that gives the attorney general the power to decide whether individual states are providing adequate counsel for defendants in death penalty cases. The authority has been held by federal judges."

Andrew Gumbel explains in the Independent: "With less than 18 months to go to secure a presidential legacy, President Bush has turned to an issue he has specialised in since approving a record number of executions while Governor of Texas. . . .

"On the question of whether defendants received adequate representation at trial - a key issue in many cases, especially in southern states with no formal public defender system -- the Attorney General would be the sole decision-maker.

"Since Mr Gonzales is a prosecutor, not a judge, and since he has a track record of favouring death in almost every capital case brought before him, the regulations would, in effect, remove a crucial safety net for prisoners who feel they have been wrongly convicted."

In a 2003 article in the Atlantic, Alan Berlow documented the Bush-Gonzales record on executions.

More Cheney!

Cheney biographer Stephen F. Hayes writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "With intelligence officials in Washington increasingly alarmed about the prospect of another major attack on the U.S. homeland, and public support for the Bush administration's anti-terror efforts reclaiming lost ground, we need more Dick Cheney."

Cheney and the Quagmire

Editor and Publisher reports on the "posting of a now wildly popular video on YouTube that shows Dick Cheney explaining in 1994 that trying to take over Iraq would be a bad idea and lead to a 'quagmire.'"

Cheney's comments were previously reported in September 2004 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but there's something mesmerizing about seeing Cheney on video explaining such a sophisticated and prescient view of the downsides of invading Iraq.

Says Cheney: "Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place? That's a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. . . .

"It's a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq.

"The other thing was casualties. Everyone was impressed with the fact we were able to do our job with as few casualties as we had. But for the 146 Americans killed in action, and for their families -- it wasn't a cheap war. And the question for the president, in terms of whether or not we went on to Baghdad, took additional casualties in an effort to get Saddam Hussein, was how many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth?

"Our judgment was, not very many, and I think we got it right."

Plante's Question

Patrick Gavin blogs for FishbowlDC: "As Karl Rove embraced President Bush [Tuesday] following an emotional farewell announcement on the South Lawn, the solemnity of the moment was shattered by Bill Plante of CBS, who bellowed to Bush: 'If he's so smart, how come you lost Congress?'"

Plante himself responds to the uproar on the CBS News Web site: "[J]udging by some of the reaction, you'd think I had been shouting obscenities in church! . . .

"People who sympathize with the President -- no matter who the President happens to be -- always seem to think it's impolite to yell questions. Or they argue that the question is inappropriate at the moment. That may sometimes be true, but not [this time].

"Rove has been a controversial figure in this administration, the man most often credited or blamed with framing support for the war by politicizing terrorism.

"There was no time to frame that question because the event this morning was a statement, not a news conference. So I asked a more direct one. I thought it unlikely that they would answer, but it's always worth a try."

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on Rove.

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