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Rove Unrepentant

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, August 23, 2007

Karl Rove exited arguing with everyone -- so spirited in his own defense as he blanketed the Sunday talk shows that he hardly needs further assistance from anyone. The resignation he handed President Bush last week, 17 months before the end of their White House tenure, writes an equivocal ending to a controversial political partnership. But Rove himself is not about to apologize for anything -- not for "outing" Valerie Plame Wilson, not for calling Hillary Rodham Clinton a "fatally flawed" candidate, not for questioning former senator Max Cleland's commitment to fighting terrorism, not for reducing the Republican Party to its lowest level of public support in a generation. And not for his contributions to the divisiveness of American politics.

It is hard to generate much sympathy for someone as unrepentant as Rove, someone who at most acknowledges that his party is "a little bit behind the curve" when it comes to the voters. One listens in vain for any sign that a decade at the center of the political-government structure has dented the sublime self-confidence of the influential White House strategist, and all one hears are the echoes of an isolated, insulated presidency.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake for Democrats -- or other Republicans -- to think that "Rovism" has run its course and that the last chapter in this story has been written.

The error would be to assume that Rove's goal is bounded by the career of George W. Bush. It has been -- and remains -- larger and longer-lasting, the domination of America by a certain type of Republicanism.

Even before his partnership with Bush began back in Austin, Rove had drunk deeply of the magic potion dispensed by Lee Atwater, the South Carolina whiz who had absorbed the anger and frustration of the white Southern blue-collar families with whom he was raised. Atwater was Rove's first boss at the Republican National Committee, and my first conversations with Rove were dominated by his encyclopedic knowledge of the shifting political allegiance of Dixie precincts as their residents reacted to the civil rights revolution and the changed positions of the national parties by migrating from Democrats to Dixiecrats and Wallace-ites to Republicans.

As a direct-mail specialist, Rove's contribution to this historic shift was his understanding that the popularity of individual Republican candidates could be leveraged -- through targeted mass mailings -- into an institutional advantage for the entire GOP. The process began at the presidential level, even before Rove, with Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush. But Rove brought it to a high art in Texas and then, spectacularly, across the country.

When Bush was elected governor of Texas in 1994, it was a lonely victory. But he parlayed his personal popularity over the next six years into a sweep of statewide offices and a Republican majority in the Legislature by assiduously identifying his supporters and flooding them with messages urging the election of other Republicans -- in effect making Texas a one-party state. As president, he did the same thing in winning elections in 2002 and 2004 -- boosting turnout in core Republican areas and trimming Democratic margins among swing voters.

In last year's elections, the formula failed spectacularly, a victim of the massive unpopularity of the Iraq war, the scandals in the Republican Congress, the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, and the failure of Social Security and immigration reform. Rove had no answer for those problems except to assign Democrats a share of the blame. And he has no answers now except for his professed belief that Republicans will come up with a better 2008 nominee than the Democrats will.

But if I know Rove, he is probably thinking even now about elections past 2008, calculating how to solidify support up and down the Republican ticket and drive fresh wedges into the Democrats.

His game has always been long term, and he plays it with an intensity and attention to detail that few can match. That kind of manager can always find candidates who will welcome his help. No one should let down his guard just because Rove is temporarily in eclipse.


Michael K. Deaver, Ronald Reagan's gentle adviser and friend, who died last week, was a model of civility and good humor, a loyal servant of the president but also a help to legions of reporters seeking to understand Reagan's way of leading.

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