By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
It was in the middle of a question-and-answer session yesterday after a speech defending President Bush's economic record that Karl Rove let drop a phrase that told us everything.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Rove started talking about "game changers," a nice, wonky term to throw around at a leading conservative think tank. The idea is that certain changes in policy can push the political debate in new and -- from the point of view of the game changer -- more congenial directions. The phrase told us everything about what Bush's No. 1 guy had once hoped to accomplish -- and everything about the fix he and the president are now in.
Rove's hope was that at the end of the Bush presidency, he and his boss would have so changed the rules of the policy and political game that all the pressures would be for lower taxes, less domestic spending, more market-friendly approaches to health care, and private accounts within Social Security.
There has indeed been a lot of game-changing going on, but Rove's remarks served to underscore that the game has, from his point of view, been changing in exactly the wrong way. At certain moments, he almost admitted as much.
Contrast Rove on offense in January before the Republican National Committee with yesterday's more defensive Rove. In January Rove spoke of the battle against terrorism and said this fall's election would turn on the contrast between "two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security."
In his speech yesterday, Rove shelved the world-historical perspective in favor of the staple issue of midterm politics, pleading with his audience to think kindly of the Bush economic record. He spoke at length about the mess the economy was in toward the end of Bill Clinton's term (though he did not mention Clinton's name), and how our economic problems were deepened by the consequences of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush's economic policies, particularly his tax cuts, helped cure what ailed us, Rove said bravely. They "have strengthened the economy, increased productivity and created new jobs."
That Rove needed to make this case in the first place tells you the trouble the administration faces. All the polls, which Rove played down but acknowledged reading avidly ("I love all these polls," he said before dismissing the idea of poll-driven policies), show large majorities disapproving of Bush's handling of the economy.
There is also a rather widespread sense that the economy did very well under Clinton -- better than under Bush -- and it's doubtful that getting voters to think about the Clinton days will do Republicans much good in November 2006.
Most astonishingly, Rove tried to make the case that Bush's tax cuts actually left the rich paying more. Everyone knows the Bush cuts in levies on dividends, capital gains and inheritances overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy. But here was Rove playing class politics by arguing that the wealthy now pay a larger share of total income taxes than they did before Bush.
This is statistical flimflam, of course. It leaves out payroll taxes, which hit most Americans the hardest. And the wealthy are paying more of the total share of income taxes, even though their rates are much lower, because their share of national income has gone up. Rove's numbers actually prove the rich are getting richer. But the fact that Rove tried to sound like William Jennings Bryan is the surest indicator that the administration is worried about its image as protector of the privileged.
The real game changer is the very question of national security that Rove has used over and over as the killer issue against Democrats. In explaining Bush's poor standing, Rove kept going back to the war in Iraq. "They're just sour right now on the war. And that's the way it's going to be," Rove said of the voters. At another point, he acknowledged that the war had created discontent in the land. "I think the war looms over everything," he said. Indeed.
Rove joked about being way "off message" in talking about the economy just hours before his president was to address the nation on immigration.
Rove needn't worry. The problem is not that Rove was off message but that the country has gone off Bush's message, and shows no sign of coming back. Everything Rove said yesterday shows that the smartest man at Bush's side knows it.