By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005
He has risen to the highest ranks of the White House, carries the title of deputy chief of staff and presides over a broad portfolio of domestic and foreign issues. But even as he has morphed from political operative to policy adviser, Karl Rove retains the instincts of the direct-mail specialist he once was in Texas.
The verbal strike he aimed at liberals and liberalism during a speech to the New York Conservative Party on Wednesday night came straight out of the direct-mail manual: pithy, provocative and designed to energize one side by torching the other.
Rove's flamboyant remarks -- in which he roused conservatives by saying liberals prefer "therapy and understanding" for terrorists instead of retaliation -- has put President Bush's top strategist back on stage. It's a place where he has seemed increasingly comfortable of late.
Through much of last year, by contrast, Rove remained largely in the shadows, avoiding on-the-record interviews or television appearances and the controversy that inevitably would have followed. A political lightning rod, whom Democrats accused of unfairly injecting the war on terrorism into the 2002 midterm elections, Rove let others in the campaign attack the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), and explain Bush's strategy to the outside world.
But the president's reelection victory liberated Rove and marked the beginning of a new chapter in his career. On the afternoon after the election, Bush paid tribute to the outsize role his longtime adviser and friend of 30 years had played, publicly identifying him as the "architect" of a victory that came only after one of the most hard-fought campaigns in modern presidential politics -- a victory even some White House officials doubted would happen, given problems in Iraq and public concerns about the economy.
Rove was rewarded with a new title (while retaining the "senior adviser" designation he carried from the first term) and the first-floor West Wing office down the hall from the Oval Office that other deputy chiefs of staff have used. Long a policy wonk in a political operative's skin, Rove always had significant involvement in issues during the first Bush term. Now, that role has been made formal, with expanded administrative powers and the explicit authority to range widely into a variety of policy areas.
His colleagues see him as one of the administration's most potent public advocates on behalf of Bush's major initiatives. "Karl is a key asset to this White House," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said in an e-mail message. "His keen insight into the president's thinking, grasp of a wide range of complex issues and ability to speak beyond the Washington Beltway, make Karl a valuable messenger for the president's second-term agenda."
In his new role, Rove has become more visible and somewhat more accessible. He has made himself available to White House reporters and has appeared more frequently on television. When he went to the New York Times for an interview earlier this year, he showed up with flowers for columnist Maureen Dowd, part of a running inside joke with one of Bush's most acerbic critics.
Rove speaks on behalf of the president not just on the politics of the moment but also on the administration's policy agenda. He has been at the center of the administration's efforts to restructure Social Security, and he will be deeply involved in the battle to confirm a new Supreme Court justice if there is a vacancy soon, as is widely expected.
Having done what few political strategists have done -- oversee two successful campaigns for the White House -- Rove has become a bona fide celebrity within the Republican Party and one of the most sought-after speakers by GOP audiences. A White House official said Rove now can attract about as much money for a candidate or the party as Vice President Cheney, behind only the president -- an unprecedented capability for a White House staff hand.
A more public role has hardly dulled Rove's combative edge. From the first days of Bush's presidential campaign in 1999 to the present, he has picked the fights and shaped the arguments used to advance his boss's agenda or political ambitions. It was Rove who shared with Bush the passion to promote personal or private accounts as part of Social Security restructuring, a battle that has proved more difficult than many White House officials envisioned. It was also Rove who helped shape the strategy of renominating a series of appellate court judges blocked by Democrats during Bush's first term.
Within the White House, Rove is regarded as a happy warrior, well-liked by colleagues for his humor and ebullient personality. To the opposition, however, Rove's remarks to the New York state Conservative Party last week were simply fresh evidence of why they loathe him. Congressional Democrats, most of whom supported Bush after Sept. 11, 2001, denounced the speech as deceitful and typical of the low-blow tactics they say have marked Rove's career.
What is still unclear is how deliberate Rove was being in prompting an uproar with his comments. With public opinion on Iraq at an ebb and the president preparing to deliver a major speech Tuesday on the subject, Rove's remarks seemed in part an effort to redraw lines to how they were in last year's presidential campaign. Bush succeeded then by casting himself as the embodiment of strength and resolve, and portraying Kerry as the symbol of weakness and vacillation.
Rove's speech -- a broader meditation on the rise of conservatism and the decline of liberalism -- is one that often animates his public remarks, White House officials noted, and is a topic he has both studied and tried to influence throughout his long career in politics. But this was the first time his inflammatory language about liberals and Sept. 11 drew such wide notice.
The White House reaction to the uproar also bore the indelible stamp of Rove: no apologies and no retractions, and all engines in the GOP spin machine churning in concert. White House press secretary Scott McClellan and Bartlett defended Rove from the briefing room and on several morning television programs, and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman jumped in with customary aggressiveness. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), in a bit of a role reversal, came to the defense of Rove by repeating some of the most provocative lines to College Republicans and saying, "That's not slander. That's the truth." The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out an e-mail fundraising appeal proclaiming "Karl Rove Is Right."
GOP officials said Rove had criticized liberals, not Democrats or the Democratic Party, a distinction that many Democrats found unpersuasive. Kerry stoked his e-mail supporters, asking them to sign a letter to Bush asking him to "thoroughly reject Karl Rove's purposeful attack on the patriotism of those who dare ask the tough questions that best protect American troops."
While many Democrats reacted with rage when they first heard about Rove's remarks, they were more mixed in their view of whether he had made the mistake of going too far or had cleverly baited a trap for them by opening up an argument on political turf that long has favored the Republicans. "I don't think anybody knows yet [whether] what he said the other night is a mistake," said Tad Devine, who was a top strategist in Kerry's campaign. "I will say it is calculated and deliberate. Karl for a long time has tried to position the Democrats as liberals, and liberals as weak, who don't want to defend America."