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Fall Elections Are Rove's Next Test
Rove gambled that Bush could bend Congress and a skeptical public to his will. He was wrong.
"When you look at the history of this second term, the Social Security proposal and selling of it . . . was a big tactical mistake," said a former White House official, who would discuss internal operations only under the condition of anonymity. "The problem was the opportunity cost: When Bush was busy selling Social Security ineffectively, the numbers on Iraq were dropping precipitously."
Rove's elevation to deputy chief of staff after the 2004 election created an imbalance inside the White House that Republicans outside the administration believe contributed to the problems in 2005. His title was understated, but, in essence, he was controlling strategic planning, day-to-day policy management, politics and often communications, aides said.
Rove's intellect, powerful personality and close relationship to the president gave him advantages in the administration's internal debates that others could not match. With his new status, his powers were, if anything, even more intimidating -- making it all the more difficult for others to challenge his views. Aides present at the time said Rove would hold strategy meetings on Social Security after it was clear that the plan was dead on Capitol Hill. No one in the room felt comfortable to challenge him -- even though, as one participant recalled, they would whisper afterward about the futility of their efforts.
The CIA leak investigation was far more of a distraction than either Bush or Rove publicly acknowledged, according to current and former White House officials. Rove testified before a federal grand jury five times, met with his high-priced lawyer, plotted a defense and faced a constant threat of being indicted for making false statements in the case. Famous for his ability to juggle issues, and staying in the loop through his BlackBerry, Rove was nonetheless pulled away at key moments.
"You cannot have that kind of thing swirling around you without an enormous amount of anxiety," said Republican lobbyist Vin Weber, an informal White House adviser and Rove ally. "I can tell you this: It demoralized the whole White House, not because they thought the guy in their midst was crooked but . . . because he is very well liked in the White House."
Some Republicans said Rove's preoccupation was partly responsible for the debacle of White House counsel Harriet Miers's failed nomination to the Supreme Court last fall. Conservatives loathed the choice and eventually forced Bush to pull her nomination, a low point for his presidency.
"That really damaged Bush," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, who added that conservatives routinely tell the president that the Miers pick was the moment they started to question him. "It was not an accident that it happened at the height of the [CIA leak probe], when Rove was at his weakest."
Rove, a historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of elections, was sensitive to the perception that his influence was waning, according to current and former White House officials. After he was stripped of control over day-to-day policy management when Joshua B. Bolten became the new chief of staff, Rove spread the word that the change did not mean he was losing the power to shape policy. By the accounts of most White House aides, this is true.
Even so, the combination of staff changes, the failure of the Social Security plan and the distraction of the leak case allowed other aides such as Bolten and adviser Dan Bartlett to rise in status and influence with Bush, the officials said. Rove remains a powerful force but one whose judgments are checked by Bolten, who is considered a more forceful chief of staff than his predecessor, Andrew H. Card Jr.; by Bartlett; and by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"Karl gets more credit and more blame than any person on Earth -- whether all things positive from a Republican perspective or negative from a liberal Democratic perspective," said John Weaver, chief strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "That's not fair. He deserves much of the credit, but so does the president and much of the team. Likewise when things go poorly."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said, "When it comes time for the Republican Party to focus on maintaining its majorities, his standing will be as large as ever because he is our go-to guy on politicking." But "when it comes to governing, it is a mixed bag" for Rove. "Nobody is going to listen to us about how bad the Democrats are until they have confidence in us" to govern effectively.
His assignment to shape strategy for the midterm elections is no easy task considering the public's low opinion of Bush and Congress. Rove has gained a reputation for running polarizing campaigns aimed at maximizing the turnout of the GOP's conservative base. But he also had success in 2004 with policy proposals designed to chip away at Democratic or swing constituencies such as Hispanics, suburban women and Roman Catholics. Republican divisions on immigration show the limitations of that strategy, but it is not likely that Rove will abandon it.
Beyond campaigns, Rove has put aides on notice that his focus is also Bush's presidential legacy. At a meeting of senior White House staffers this month, one official recalled, budget director Rob Portman suggested in the course of discussing some issues that time was limited. "We've only got so much time left," Portman said.
"Wait," Rove interrupted. "We've got a lot of time left. Jack Kennedy's whole presidency was 2 1/2 years."