Rove Remains Steadfast in the Face of Criticism

Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, right, and Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten  listen to President Bush the morning after the midterm elections.
Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, right, and Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten listen to President Bush the morning after the midterm elections. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006

For a man still climbing out of the rubble, Karl Rove seemed in his usual unflappable mood. He roamed around his windowless West Wing office decorated with four Abraham Lincoln portraits, joking with his staff, stuffing copies of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" into his bag and signing the last paperwork of the day.

The Architect, as President Bush once called him, has a theory for why the building fell down. "Get me the one-pager!" he cried out to an aide, who promptly delivered a single sheet of paper that had been updated almost hourly since the midterm elections with a series of statistics explaining that the "thumping" Bush took was not such a thumping after all.

The theory is this: The building's infrastructure was actually quite sound. It was bad luck and seasonal shifts in the winds that blew out the walls -- complacent candidates, an ill-timed Mark Foley page scandal and the predictable cycles of history. But the foundation is fine: "The Republican philosophy is alive and well and likely to reemerge in the majority in 2008."

The rest of Washington might think Tuesday's elections were a repudiation of Rove's brand of politics, but Rove does not. For years, he has been the center of hyperbolic attention -- called the genius, the electoral mastermind, the most powerful presidential adviser in a century, Bush's brain, the master of the dark arts of wedge politics, the Republican Moses leading conservatives out of the desert.

The mythology grew to such an outsized degree that when Rove insisted again and again during the campaign that Republicans would win despite the odds, fearful Democrats convinced themselves that he must have known something they did not and waited for an October surprise to spring. Rove encouraged that with supreme confidence. "You are entitled to your math, and I'm entitled to the math," he told a National Public Radio interviewer who suggested Democrats might win.

It turns out that Rove is mortal after all, and not always so good at math. And his critics are crowing. If he tuned in to CNN or NPR last week, here's a sampling of what he would have heard about himself.

Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail pioneer: "Clearly a loss for George Bush, Karl Rove."

Andrew Sullivan, the conservative writer: "Shows him not to be a genius, but to be a real failure as a political strategist."

Bill Maher, the political satirist: "Karl Rove has led this Republican Party down a hole."

David Gergen, ex-presidential adviser: "He went off to hardliners, and that left an awful lot of moderates . . . feeling alienated."

Even Bush seemed to be jabbing at Rove in the aftermath of the elections, which handed Congress back to the Democrats. At a news conference Wednesday, Bush was asked about his ongoing book-reading contest with Rove. "I'm losing," Bush said tartly. "I obviously was working harder in the campaign that he was."

But those who interpret that as anything more than an affectionate, if edgy, dig misunderstand the president's sense of humor and his relationship with his chief strategist, according to officials. Bush likes to needle Rove, even nicknaming him "Turd Blossom," but aides said he does not blame his adviser for the loss, and few believe Rove will lose his job. Instead, he will turn to figuring out a policy and political agenda that can salvage the last two years of the Bush presidency.

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