Correction to This Article
The surname of National Federation of Independent Business President Jack Faris was misspelled in a March 10 article and graphic about White House aide Karl Rove.

White House's Roving Eye for Politics

By Thomas B. Edsall and Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 10, 2003

Karl Rove, the most powerful adviser in the White House, serves as President Bush's eyes and ears. But who serves as Rove's eyes and ears while he toils in the bubble of the West Wing?

Methodically and ambitiously, Rove has developed a web of contacts in Washington and across the country to give him the latest intelligence on politics and policy -- which he then synthesizes and forwards to the president in private meetings.

From California to New Hampshire and from think tanks to Wall Street, Rove's network of 150 politicians, lobbyists, strategists, academics and executives -- the most influential among the many Rove speaks with, according to those familiar with his thinking -- have so far helped him to help Bush exceed expectations about his political power. In an administration that is highly centralized and highly secretive, Rove's network of informal advisers explains much about how the White House decides on politics and policy.

With access to Rove's ear and e-mail, these advisers help fashion everything from abortion to tax policy, shape the content of legislative initiatives, propose appointees to key boards and commissions and suggest political strategies and tactics. Though invariably discreet about their ties to Rove, many of them receive significant benefits in return, including White House favors and attention to the interests of clients, donors and associates.

The largest group, more than half, are the Republican senators and House members Rove speaks with, such as Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.). An additional two dozen are well-known Washington political hands. A score of them are Rove's old business and political associates from Texas. After that, it is a smattering of governors, corporate executives, state GOP officials, legislative staffers, scholars and conservative leaders. There are even a few Democrats, although the overall ideological tilt is decisively to the right.

Some are obvious, such as former White House colleague Karen P. Hughes or Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot (he and Rove meet each Monday at 6:30 a.m. over oatmeal in the White House mess). Less obvious are Dirk Van Dongen, of the National Association of Wholesalers-Distributors, and California interior designer Katie Boyd.

Few would suspect that Rove regularly trades tips with Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager; she tells Rove how Bush's proposals are faring among Democrats, while Rove makes sure her clients are included in White House events.

"We're not drinking buddies, we're allies; we both know where we want the country to be 10 years from now," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, describing his relationship with Rove. "In working with Karl, I can look over and Karl and the White House will be riding parallel to where the [conservative] movement is."

GOP pollster Ed Goeas likens Rove's contacts to "a radar system constantly going on out there. We have our radar on all the time." Goeas is not one of the pollsters for the White House, but Rove checks in with him monthly to see what trends Goeas is picking up, and to see, as Goeas puts it, "what's sticking and what's not sticking."

In putting out feelers across the country, Rove is following the model of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Gingrich, however, developed a network of idea producers and policy strategists that spanned an ideologically wide range. Rove's confidants tend much more to be in sympathy with his thinking and the Bush agenda. They may challenge and dispute Rove on specifics, but, with few exceptions, they share the goals of Bush's reelection and the achievement of a Republican majority.

A Two-Way Street

Rove uses the tips he gets. Myron Magnet, editor of the conservative Manhattan Institute's City Journal, recently suggested to Rove that the GOP November election victory presented an ideal time to attempt a school-voucher program for the District. Such a proposal soon surfaced.

Or consider Magnet's recommendations on public housing. Magnet sent a memo and an article to Rove about how policies Bush was pursuing -- including the Section 8 housing voucher program and Hope VI, a program Bush publicly praised that rebuilds public housing -- "ran counter to compassionate conservatism" because they did not encourage "personal responsibility." Magnet learned that Rove had sent the article to a deputy secretary of housing, and Bush's new budget would phase out Hope VI and convert much of Section 8 to block grants to states.

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