The Rove Legacy

President Bush with Hillary Clinton, whom a former Karl Rove associate sees as the presidential hopeful running this race's closest thing to a Rove campaign.
President Bush with Hillary Clinton, whom a former Karl Rove associate sees as the presidential hopeful running this race's closest thing to a Rove campaign. (By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

As he packs his desk just 15 steps from the Oval Office, Karl Rove says he will not join any 2008 presidential campaign. That's just as well because none of the Republican candidates presumably could afford the association even if they wanted his strategic smarts. Besides, none of them is running the campaign quite the way he would. The candidate who seems to be adopting his style and methods the most so far? Hillary Rodham Clinton.

At least that's what Nicolle Wallace thinks. The former Bush White House communications director, who worked closely with Rove, said that Clinton "has almost operationalized the whole idea of turning your weakness into strength, message discipline that is almost pathological -- she does not get off message for any reason -- and never skipping an opportunity to exploit her opponent's weaknesses."

Clinton's campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, seems to agree with that assessment, having effectively vowed to run her operation much as Rove did his two successful national campaigns. "She expresses admiration for the way George W. Bush's campaign team controlled its message, and, given her druthers, would run this race no differently," Michelle Cottle writes this month in New York magazine. " 'We are a very disciplined group, and I am very proud of it,' she says with a defiant edge."

Rove and the Clintons have circled each other warily these past eight years, exhibiting a mix of grudging respect and deep bitterness as the central, if competing, political strategists of their era. Rove singled out Hillary Clinton in interviews in the past few days, predicting she will win the Democratic nomination and be a tough opponent in the fall of 2008.

"Any rational observer would have to say that Hillary Clinton is a prohibitive favorite to win the nomination," he told reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday as he and President Bush headed to vacation in Texas. In his weekend interview with the Wall Street Journal's Paul A. Gigot, published Monday, Rove called her "a tough, tenacious, fatally flawed candidate."

The Clintons recognize the skill Rove has brought to politics and admire his craft, if not his ideology. Just days after the November 2004 election, Bill Clinton pulled Rove aside at the dedication of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas. "Hey, you did a marvelous job, it was just marvelous what you did," Clinton told Rove, according to the book "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008," by John F. Harris and Mark Halperin. "I want to get you down to the library. I want to talk politics with you. You just did an incredible job, and I'd like to really get together with you and I think we could have a great conversation."

That's not to say Rove hasn't irritated the Clintons. Hillary Clinton uses him regularly as a foil in fundraising appeals and on the trail. And by last year, Bill Clinton was expressing exasperation rather than admiration. "I am sick of Karl Rove's [manure]," the former president exclaimed to New Yorker magazine's David Remnick. Even then, Remnick wrote, "there was a trace of admiration in the remark, a veteran pol's regard for the way his rival had packaged a radical brand of American conservatism as 'compassionate conservatism' and kept on pushing it long after its sell-by date had passed."

And why not? Harris and Halperin wrote last year that Rove and the Clintons shared some of the same understandings of how politics work, and the two authors even crafted a list they titled "What Hillary Clinton and Karl Rove Know About the Way to Win the White House in 2008." Clinton, they wrote, has "borrowed some strategies" from Rove for dealing with the news media, enemies and anticipated attacks. "Like Karl Rove," they wrote, "Hillary Clinton knows that playing offense is better than playing defense. . . . Hillary Clinton obviously dislikes Bush's policy goals, but she appreciates some of the methods he has used to achieve them."

So, would a Clinton victory next year be a repudiation of Karl Rove politics or the perpetuation of them?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company