By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
It's a heck of a curse.
Presidential adviser Karl Rove had almost finished his appearance yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute when it happened. Discussing the Bush administration's record on illegal immigration, he blurted out, "We're doing a heck of a job."
President Bush made the phrase a national shorthand for incompetence when he bestowed it on FEMA Director Mike "Brownie" Brown in the days after Hurricane Katrina. And Rove knew he stepped in it yesterday. First, he said the administration was doing "a heck of a lot better, uh, job of getting control of the border." Then he uttered the forbidden phrase, and it sent him into a syntactical tailspin: "We're doing a heck of a job -- lot better job at getting, at getting, uh, the -- the problem of catch-and-release under control."
Rove has a lot on his mind these days -- a fact hinted at in the introduction to his speech by AEI President Christopher DeMuth. "In Washington, the hens are clucking and pecking and the sharks are circling," DeMuth observed. "Still, he goes about his work with discipline, serenity, never permitting himself to lapse into vitriol at the unfairness of it all, even in circumstances of flagrant unfairness."
Among the unfair circumstances: Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald still has not released Rove from the probe into the Valerie Plame case. Add to that the unfairness of a Harris poll last week that put Bush's support at 29 percent. And top it off with the flagrant unfairness of new White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten stripping Rove of his policy duties.
As if in answer to that demotion, Rove's AEI speech was billed as a "major policy address" -- and he inflicted a barrage of statistics on his audience. He knew that the tax burden went from 40.5 to 46.6 percent on the top 3 percent of taxpayers, that S&P 500 companies increased dividend payments 725 times and that real disposable income was up 14 percent. He then recited border statistics for the week of April 10.
His audience, half of them journalists, struggled to pull Rove back to the political during the Q&A. "Look, I don't want to spend a lot of time on polls," the wonk said with reproach. "I love this mania which has swept through American media today which substitutes polls for coverage of substance." In the manner of a fish disavowing water, he continued, "We're going to stay focused on good policy, and confident that that will ultimately take care of the politics."
Only after prodding did Rove stoop from his policy perch to offer a political thought. "Look, we're in a sour time," he said. "I readily admit it. I mean, being in the middle of a war where people turn on their television sets and see brave men and women dying is not something that makes people happy and optimistic and upbeat. But I'm absolutely confident that . . . we're going to be just fine in the fall elections."
David Corn of the liberal Nation magazine made the obligatory (and fruitless) attempt to draw Rove into a discussion about his role in the Plame affair. "My attorney, Mr. Luskin, made a statement on April 26th," the policymaker said. "I refer you to that statement. I have nothing more to add to it. Nice try, though."
What Rove had much to add to was the Bush economic record. As he described it, the administration has increased the tax burden on the wealthiest Americans and restrained the federal budget through frequent veto threats. These were difficult claims, but Rove was equal to the task.
For example, groups such as the Congressional Budget Office have reported that the Bush tax cuts have shifted the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class. But Rove had another way to look at it: For the top 1 percent, "their share of income tax payments is up by 1.5 percent."
Likewise, federal spending has increased some 40 percent over the past five years, with discretionary spending jumping by more than 55 percent. But, again, Rove had a different view. "The president has reduced the growth of non-security discretionary spending every year in office," he said.
In a similar vein, Bush has not vetoed a single bill since he became president. But Rove said that it was "39 veto threats" that had the effect of "restraining spending to the levels proposed in the president's budget."
The questioners were skeptical. NPR's Mara Liasson wondered why "so many conservatives don't seem to agree with you and are really up in arms about spending."
"They're missing the facts," Rove said.
The Wall Street Journal's Jeanne Cummings pointed out that Congress did, in fact, miss Bush's spending target despite a veto threat on the highway bill.
"You can't find any other bill where they've breached his target," Rove revised.
Jim Klumpner, a Democratic staffer on the Senate Budget Committee, wondered if declines in real household and family income meant that "many, if not most, Americans have suffered real income losses under President Bush."
"Well, not necessarily," Rove replied. He launched into a technical explanation, followed by a rare disclaimer: "I'm not the expert in it."