Karl Rove’s legacy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Robert No­vak

The most use­less spec­u­la­tion to­day in Wash­ing­ton is whom Chief of Staff Josh Bolten might choose to re­place Karl Rove at the White House. He is gen­uinely ir­re­place­able. No­body will at­tempt to com­bine the po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy func­tions as Mr. Rove has done. In­deed, fel­low Repub­li­cans ques­tion whether he should have at­tempted the feat him­self.

Mr. Rove was a prin­ci­pal tar­get of con­gres­sional Democrats even be­fore Fe­bru­ary 2005, when he be­came deputy chief of staff in ad­di­tion to se­nior ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Bush. But the com­bi­na­tion of the du­ties in­ten­si­fied the as­sault on him. Prom­i­nent Repub­li­cans of late have pri­vately ex­pressed the de­sire that he leave the gov­ern­ment in hopes that might di­min­ish the in­ten­sity of the Demo­cratic as­sault.

While Mr. Rove de­camp­ing back to Texas is un­likely to de­fang the op­po­si­tion, the mere fact that it is men­tioned as a pos­si­bil­ity re­veals the am­bi­gu­ity of his legacy. Mr. Rove is one of the can­ni­est and most suc­cess­ful man­agers in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory. Yet he is viewed within his own party’s ranks, es­pe­cially on Capi­tol Hill, as part of the prob­lem af­flict­ing the Grand Old Party.

Mr. Rove is unique, a rare po­lit­i­cal me­chanic with a com­pre- hen­sive knowl­edge of Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory. As an ob­scure young cam­paign con­sul­tant in Austin, Texas, 20 years ago, he em­braced Ge­orge W. Bush — who had failed in both pol­i­tics and busi­ness — and gave him a plan to guide him into the White House.

But that vic­tory in the 2000 elec­tion was so nar­row — a mar­gin of less than 1,000 votes in Florida and one Supreme Court jus­tice — that it brought with it Demo­cratic rage at Mr. Bush as an “il­le­git­i­mate” pres­i­dent. In re­ac­tion, Mr. Rove went to work to build a stronger Repub­li­can base, reach­ing out to Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials for party build­ing. That is noth­ing new in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, but has seemed more bla­tant the last six and one-half years.

The com­bi­na­tion of party and pol­icy was epit­o­mized by the dis­tri­bu­tion in the White House of Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee e-mail ac­counts, with pres­i­den­tial aides given party Black­Ber­rys. This lethal meld­ing was con­firmed af­ter the 2004 elec­tion vic­tory, when Mr. Rove as deputy chief of staff took on pol­icy as well as po­lit­i­cal du­ties.

He was at that point her­alded in GOP ranks as a mas­ter politi­cian, de­sign­ing a ring­ing Repub­li­can vic­tory in the 2002 midterm elec­tions sand­wiched by his guid­ing a flawed can­di­date to two pres­i­den­tial vic­to­ries. But grat­i­tude in pol­i­tics is not for­ever. Repub­li­can con­gres­sional cheers turned to jeers af­ter the 2006 losses.

Mr. Rove has not helped his pop­u­lar­ity on Capi­tol Hill in his talks to new con­gres­sional can­di­dates for 2008 that blame the 2006 elec­tions on prof­li­gate spend­ing and nu­mer­ous scan- dals by the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress. To many Repub­li­cans in Congress, the Demo­cratic vic­tory can be traced to the Iraq war and a de­ci­sion by Messrs. Bush and Rove to “na­tion­al­ize” the midterm elec­tions.

Mr. Rove al­ways had been a happy war­rior, self-con­fi­dent in build­ing a broad-based Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity. But his joy of pol­i­tics was di­min­ished by Spe­cial Coun­sel Pa­trick Fitzger­ald’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of him in the CIA leak case. Al­though Mr. Fitzger­ald knew from the start that not Mr. Rove but the po­lit­i­cally non­de­script Deputy Sec­re­tary of State Richard Ar­mitage was my pri­mary source in iden­ti­fy­ing Va­lerie Plame as a CIA em­ployee, the pros­e­cu­tor came close to in­dict­ing Mr. Rove for per­jury or ob­struc­tion of jus­tice. Mr. Rove ri­valed Mr. Bush as a hate-fig­ure for left-wing pol­i­tics.

Joseph Wil­son did not know the iden­tity of my ac­tual source when he talked about “frog­march­ing” Mr. Rove into jail, set­ting a mind­less pat­tern soon fol­lowed by blog­gers and politi­cians alike. A talk­a­tive ju­ror, af­ter con­vict­ing Scooter Libby for per­jury and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice, ex­pressed sor­row that it was not Karl Rove.

The de­sire to get Mr. Rove has out­lived the Va­lerie Plame case, with Demo­cratic law­mak­ers try­ing to make him the tar­get in the fired U.S. at­tor­neys case. Since there will be no im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings against the pres­i­dent, Mr. Rove has been the best avail­able sur­ro­gate.

No won­der that a lead­ing Repub­li­can has been ask­ing around whether fe­ro­cious Demo­cratic par­ti­sans in Congress might ease up if Mr. Rove were no longer there to kick around. That pro­vides melan­choly exit mu­sic for one of the most ef­fec­tive, most pow­er­ful of all pres­i­den­tial aides.

Robert No­vak is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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