Thursday, April 20, 2006; 2:03 PM
When President Bush gave longtime political guru and senior adviser Karl Rove the additional title of deputy chief of staff for policy a little over a year ago, it was the ultimate expression of Bush's failure to make a distinction between politics and policy.
But there is a difference. Politics is about elections; policy is about governing. In politics, it's all about winning; in governing, it's about making things better.
By putting Rove so overtly in charge of policy, Bush implicitly authorized him to use the power of the White House primarily to achieve his lifelong dream: A lasting Republican majority. Traditionally, presidential candidates have won election in order to govern; in this case, Bush and Rove won in order to win some more.
And while misunderestimating Rove's campaign skills has been a fatal mistake for Bush's opponents, overestimating his ability to govern may have been a serious mistake for Bush.
In retrospect, the perils of merging politics and policy seem clear. Rove-directed policies have contributed to a deeply unpopular presidency, increasingly accused of being not only divisive but incompetent.
Giving Rove a leading role in the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts was perhaps the greatest example. What did rebuilding New Orleans have to do with creating a permanent Republican majority? Not much. In fact, arguably quite the opposite.
Yesterday, with the public growing more and more disillusioned with his presidency, the press increasingly restive and congressional elections around the bend, Bush let new chief of staff Joshua Bolten take Rove's policy title away. Rove's day-to-day policy obligations will shift to Joel Kaplan, who previously served as Bolten's top lieutenant in the White House's budget office. Rove may even get physically moved back upstairs to the West Wing's second floor, losing his office just down the hall from the Oval. (See my White House floor plan.)
But what does it really mean? It's not entirely clear. There are no signs that Rove's influence on Bush and the White House will wane significantly. The key will be watching if any new policies emerge or old policies are abandoned. And so far, there are no indications of that.
The president yesterday also pushed press secretary Scott McClellan overboard, evidently in an attempt to reassure the public about his credibility and his leadership.
And yet, while McClellan's removal will have a huge impact on the day-to-day existence of the White House press corps, it arguably has no greater significance -- until or unless the new press secretary gets different marching orders.
The early line on who might succeed McClellan -- that the White House is considering two people affiliated with Fox News as his replacement -- says more about the White House's close relationship with Fox than it does about any intention to be more forthcoming.
And by contrast, the one Bush personnel move that would actually make a statement -- the firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- is evidently off the table.