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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

What's Karl Rove Up To?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 18, 2004; 11:31 AM

It's not just President Bush's legacy at stake on Nov. 2 -- it's also Karl Rove's.

So campaign cognoscenti are keeping a close eye on the master strategist these next two weeks, furiously mulling two questions.

Will Rove's decision to invigorate the base -- at the risk of alienating everyone else -- ultimately make him a hero or a goat?

And does he still have something up his sleeve?

Traditionally, the furious mulling about Rove is complicated by his insistence on hovering behind the scenes. But Rove is making himself hard to miss these days, giving interviews right and left -- most of them to reporters, but in one case, for two hours on Friday, to a federal grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case.

The Ultimate Test for Rove's 'Strategery'

Mike Allen writes in Sunday's Washington Post that Rove's original 2004 election plan was to improve the party's performance among some traditionally Democratic constituencies and in that way create a permanent Republican majority.

"Now, two weeks before the election, the Bush-Cheney campaign would be happy to eke out the barest, skin-of-the-teeth majority, and aims to cobble it together by turning out every last evangelical Christian, gun owner, rancher and home schooler -- reliable Republicans all.

"Rove had to trim his hopes for realigning party politics because of the way the president handled Iraq, and because Bush made little effort on issues, such as the environment, that might have attracted more traditionally Democratic constituencies. Instead, Bush catered to conservatives on everything from support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage to constant talk about tax cuts. The main critique of the Rove strategy, from inside and outside his party, is that the White House governed in a divisive way, when Bush could have used his popularity after the terrorist attacks to reach out to swing voters and even to African Americans. . . .

"Still, if Rove is the man whom many hold accountable for Bush's current predicament, he is also the one who they most believe has the skill to get him out. Rove, who holds the deceptively bland title of senior adviser to the president, has the broadest reach and most power of any official in the West Wing. But he also oversees every detail of the ostensibly separate, $259 million Bush-Cheney campaign, from staffing the campaign with his young loyalists rather than veteran Republicans, to monitoring small-newspaper clippings around the country."

Tom Carver reports for the BBC: "At the centre of this titanic battle sits Karl Rove, Bush's political advisor.

"Rove has fashioned a unique political strategy around George Bush which relies more on motivating social conservatives than winning over moderates in the middle ground. . . .

"If Rove is right and he wins a second term for his boss, he will go down in the pantheon of great political operators.

"If he fails, his boss will be remembered as a one-term Republican president who had no major impact on the course of Republican philosophy. . . .

"And Karl Rove will be cast into the wilderness."

Rove and Valerie Plame

Susan Schmidt writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, testified yesterday before a federal grand jury investigating whether administration officials last year illegally disclosed the identity of covert CIA employee Valerie Plame.

"Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, said Rove testified for about two hours and had 'made himself available previously' in the investigation. Luskin said special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has assured Rove that he is not a target of the probe. . . .

"Three sources involved in the probe said yesterday that the prosecutor is struggling with what one called an 'echo chamber' effect in seeking the information's origin."

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "It was not entirely clear why the prosecutor sought Mr. Rove's testimony. Lawyers who represent people in the case said Mr. Fitzgerald appeared to be seeking additional testimony from White House officials whose actions had been cited by the reporters who had recently been subpoenaed and had agreed to answer the prosecutor's questions."

Tom Brune writes in Newsday: "The apparent clearance of Rove comes at an opportune time for the Bush administration as it enters the last few weeks before the election in a tight presidential campaign in which challenger John Kerry has made the probe an issue."

An October Surprise?

Here's Mike Allen of The Washington Post, answering a question Live Online on Friday:

"Westminster, Md.: Mike: What is your sense for the mood in the White House and Air Force One? Calm and collected or a tad anxious? Many people expect a Karl Rove surprise at the last minute to swing the election. Are you picking up any indication that something is in the works?

"Mike Allen: The mood is like a long car ride home from a tiring family trip. Yes, the president and Mr. Rove both love surprises. Reporters would not be shocked if Osama bin Laden turned up, or a cache of ugly stuff in Iraq was found."

And I think it's safe to add that most of us are on edge for another terror alert.

Rove's Goals for Today and Tomorrow

As Maura Reynolds and Edwin Chen wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week, Rove lately "has been making nearly daily visits to the press filing center during campaign stops, not just to serve up sunny assessments of the race but to play practical jokes on reporters."

He was certainly chatty on Saturday, in West Palm Beach, talking about today's presidential trip up to New Jersey -- and then back again to Florida.

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "With a little more than two weeks before Election Day, the president is campaigning on Monday in New Jersey, a state in the shadow of the Manhattan skyline that was scarred by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. . . .

" 'From a lot of places in New Jersey you could see the towers,' Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, told reporters at a weekend campaign rally in West Palm Beach, Fla.

" 'A lot of people in New Jersey, a lot of communities in New Jersey felt personally the sting of 9/11. I think that has made them more sensitive -- as we get close to the end -- about the question of who will make America safer.'"

David L. Greene writes in the Baltimore Sun: " 'We're in a time of war,' Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser, shaper of his image and architect of his campaign, said yesterday as he discussed the strategy. 'Do you want a leader who vacillates, caves to political pressure and attempts to hide his true feelings behind a veneer of rhetoric? Or do you want a leader who says what he believes and does what he says?' "

After New Jersey, Bush flies to Florida.

Rochelle Brenner writes for the Palm Beach Post: "Bush faithful will pay $25,000 a head to attend a fund-raiser at the Boca Raton home of developer Ned Siegel."

Then Bush flies to St. Petersburg.

As Elizabeth Shogren wrote over the weekend from Florida, in the Los Angeles Times: " 'We will be here frequently, covering the state like the morning dew,' Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, said. . . .

"Rove conceded that the campaign was concerned that supporters of the president whose lives were disrupted during the recent hurricanes may not make it to the polls. 'All four hurricanes made landfall in Republican counties,' he said."

Rove on the Debates and the Next Two Weeks

Roger Simon writes in U.S. News: "In his first debate he had been petulant, and in his second he had been pugnacious. Which meant there was one thing George W. Bush desperately needed to be in his third and final debate against John Kerry last week. But how do you tell a president of the United States that he needs to be more presidential?

" 'We didn't need to tell him,' Karl Rove, Bush's chief political guru, told U.S. News. 'He knew. He's a competitor. And he worked on it.' And for much of last week's debate in Tempe, Ariz., Bush did look more presidential."

Simon writes that Rove "thought Bush scored a decisive victory in the final debate. 'He was in the zone,' Rove says. Rove also promised that Bush wouldn't do what candidates usually do in the last weeks of a campaign: endlessly repeat their stump speech rather than risk making any mistakes. 'Over the next 20 days you will see different speeches on a cluster of issues targeted to different states,' Rove says. 'The final debate was a fantastic end to that phase of the campaign, and we are now beginning the final phase. And George Bush is a strong closer.' "

Balance Watch

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "In articles, columns and one internal ABC News memo, some journalists have argued that the president has engaged in far more serious distortions than John Kerry has, and that media outlets should blow the whistle on these falsehoods. . . .

"At issue is how far reporters should go in analyzing the candidates' attacks and ads, especially if one side is using a howitzer and the other a popgun. Mark Halperin, ABC's political director, fueled the debate with a memo that leaked to the Drudge Report. . . .

"The key question is one of magnitude. Kerry had been saying the war in Iraq has cost $200 billion; that is the current estimate, but the price tag so far is $120 billion. (Kerry adjusted his answer in the final debate.) Bush keeps charging that Kerry is pushing a 'government-run' health care plan, even though nearly all analysts and journalists have concluded that it builds on the existing system of private insurance. That would seem a more fundamental misrepresentation. (Bush repeated the charge in the Arizona debate, and when Kerry cited network reports challenging the claim, the president questioned whether 'it's credible to quote leading news organizations.')"

Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler asked on Sunday whether a journalistic commitment to balance can "become a weakness when there is little real balance to what is being done or said, but journalists or headline writers still bend over backward to present the situation in a balanced fashion?"

National Guard Watch

Matt Kelley writes for the Associated Press over the weekend: "Weeks after Texas National Guard officials signed an oath swearing they had turned over all of President Bush's military records, independent examiners found more than two dozen pages of previously unreleased documents about Bush.

"The two retired Army lawyers went through Texas files under an agreement between the Texas Guard and The Associated Press, which sued to gain access to the files. The 31 pages of documents turned over to AP Thursday night include orders for high-altitude training in 1972, less than three months before Bush abruptly quit flying as a fighter pilot. . . .

"The altitude training came six weeks before Bush began an unexplained string of flights on two-seat training jets and simulators. On April 12, 1972, Bush took his last flight in the single-seat F-102A fighter."

You can find the new documents here.

Suskind on Bush and Faith

Ron Suskind's much-anticipated New York Times Magazine article on Bush and faith came out over the weekend.

In Sunday's story, Suskind asserts that Bush "has created the faith-based presidency."

Part of his argument is that the evangelicals at the core of his base believe that Bush "is a messenger from God."

But the other part is that Bush "has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision -- often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position -- he expects complete faith in its rightness," Suskind writes.

"The disdainful smirks and grimaces that many viewers were surprised to see in the first presidential debate are familiar expressions to those in the administration or in Congress who have simply asked the president to explain his positions. Since 9/11, those requests have grown scarce; Bush's intolerance of doubters has, if anything, increased, and few dare to question him now. A writ of infallibility -- a premise beneath the powerful Bushian certainty that has, in many ways, moved mountains -- is not just for public consumption: it has guided the inner life of the White House."

In one paragraph particularly seized-upon by bloggers, Suskind quotes a "senior adviser" to Bush:

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.' "

Kerry Reads Suskind

Jim VandeHei and Chris L. Jenkins write in The Washington Post today: "John F. Kerry accused President Bush of having a secret, second-term plan to privatize Social Security starting in January, telling a church audience Sunday that the idea is 'a disaster for America's middle class.'

"Kerry based this allegation on a secondhand, unattributed account of a private speech Bush reportedly delivered to Republican supporters in September. 'I am going to come in strong after my swearing in . . . with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatizing of Social Security,' Bush was quoted as saying in a Sunday New York Times Magazine article that was highly critical of the president. It was written by Ron Suskind, co-author with former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill of a book condemning the Bush administration."

Bulge Watch

The Post's Mike Allen took several questions about the Bush "bulge" on Friday's Live Online.

Are you guys still working on the story, he was asked.

"Oy. Yes, we remain interested in this story, mainly because so many people are talking about it and because the White House and campaign responses have been so contradictory. Democrats love it -- Mike McCurry talked with reporters on the Kerry plane on Wednesday about how the alleged bulge in the back of Bush's jacket continues to pay play out on the blogosphere and TV. 'It's been on the Internet for a week,' McCurry said. Bush aides will tell you it is ridiculous, but they can't explain the bulge. Some of them tell you it's a cheap suit, some of them tell you it's one of his best suits. I thought maybe it was a Secret Service James Bond device, but they swear it is not. And they say he was not wearing a vest. Anybody who can help solve the mystery, I welcome your thoughts."

Well why not ask Bush directly, he was asked.

"The last time the president took questions from the full press corps was when he appeared in the Rose Garden with Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, on Sept. 23, and he did not call on any newspaper reporters," Allen wrote.

Tim Russert did ask Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman directly, on Meet the Press yesterday -- and did not get a serious response. Here's the exchange:

"MR. RUSSERT: Before we go, Mr. Mehlman, clear up this mystery that has been raging on the Internet. This was the first debate, George Bush at the podium, the bulge in the back of the suit. All right. Come clean. What is it?

"MR. MEHLMAN: The president, in fact, was receiving secret signals from aliens in outer space. You heard it here on Meet the Press. . . .

"MR. RUSSERT: It was not a bulletproof vest or magnets for his back or anything?

"MR. MEHLMAN: I'm not sure what it was, but the gentleman responsible for the tailoring of that suit is no longer working for this administration."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "The bulge -- the strange rectangular box visible between the president's shoulder blades in the first debate -- has set off so much frenzied speculation on the Internet that it has become what literary critics call an objective correlative, or an object that evokes large emotions and ideas."

Pill Watch

Al Kamen writes in his column in The Washington Post that "now there's a new mystery that some eagle-eyed viewers noticed just after the debate between Vice President Cheney and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). It happened while the families were up on the stage, congratulating and hugging their candidates and then wandering about desperately pretending they don't despise one another.

"Cheney, we're told, reached into his pocket and appeared to pull out a pill and swallow it. Given his ticker ailments, might this be a nitroglycerin pill for his heart? Tums? A jelly bean? The bloggers doubtless were gearing up for Pillgate.

"A Cheney campaign spokeswoman said Friday it was a 'breath mint.' "

Job Approval Numbers

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "While most of America is watching the spread in the polls between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, key strategists in both parties have their eyes on a different set of numbers: Bush's share of the vote and his job approval in the final surveys before election day. . . .

"By that standard, the race today is teetering right on the knife's edge, though perhaps tilting slightly toward Bush after he regained the lead in five separate national polls released over the weekend. More importantly, for the first time since the debates, Bush in three of the latest surveys cracked the 50% level in support -- the best news GOP strategists have seen in weeks. . . .

"Bush's approval rating, another key indicator, is still running just below 50% in most polls."

In fact, today's CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll gives Bush a 51 percent approval rating. But pollingreport.com shows some other recent approval numbers, all below 50: Newsweek, 47; Time, 47; CBS, 43.

Postwar Planning

Warren P. Strobel and John Walcott write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "A Knight Ridder review of the administration's Iraq policy and decisions has found that it invaded Iraq without a comprehensive plan in place to secure and rebuild the country. The administration also failed to provide some 100,000 additional U.S. troops that American military commanders originally wanted to help restore order and reconstruct a country shattered by war, a brutal dictatorship and economic sanctions."

A critical mistake, Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott write in a companion piece, was disbanding the Iraqi army.

As a Newsweek story reported last week, it's not clear whether that decision was ultimately made by L. Paul Bremer, then running the U.S. occupation in Iraq, or by the White House.

Bush on the Draft

Making it very clear in a speech in Daytona Beach, eventually:

"My opponent seems to be willing to say almost anything he thinks will benefit him politically. After standing on the stage, after the debates, I made it very plain, we will not have an all-volunteer army. And yet, this week -- we will have an all-volunteer army. (Applause.) Let me restate that. (Laughter.) We will not have a draft. (Applause.) No matter what my opponent tries to tell people and scare them, we will have an all-volunteer army. (Applause.) The only person talking about a draft is my opponent. The only politicians who have supported a draft are Democrats. And the best way to avoid a draft is to vote for me. (Applause.)"

Live Online

I'll be Live Online Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET. You can send me your questions and comments anytime.

Hiding Cheney?

Blaine Harden writes in The Washington Post: "By choice of the Bush campaign, Vice President Cheney's face and biography do not appear in the 2004 Oregon Voters' Pamphlet, which was mailed this week to 1.6 million households in a swing state where the presidential race remains too close to call."

Who'd Be In and Out

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that "from the West Wing to the cafeteria at the State Department, the guessing about where the Administration is going quickly turns to who would go where."

He briefs us on the Rumsfeld Keystone, the Powell Paradox and the Cheney Conundrum.

Was It Something We Wrote?

The Associated Press reports: "An air circulation unit went on the fritz at the White House Sunday and sent smoke through parts of the West Wing. . . .

"Smoke filled several areas of the West Wing, including the White House briefing room, cubicles used by the press and offices occupied by the Bush administration's communications officials."

© 2004 washingtonpost.com