Post-Rovian Thinking

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 14, 2007 2:10 PM

Karl Rove's surprise resignation yesterday as senior adviser to President Bush has prompted an extraordinary wave of analysis about Rove's tenure, Bush's presidency, presidential politics and what's ahead for the White House.

White House: On Defense

Peter Baker and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post that Rove's resignation opens "a new phase of the politically battered Bush presidency as it heads into its final months without some of the central players who shaped it. . . .

"The wave of departures signals a broader transition as Bush shifts away from the sweeping domestic initiatives on taxes, education, Social Security and immigration that Rove favored, and refocuses his presidency to a more defensive posture in the face of an opposition Congress and sunken poll ratings. . . .

"The White House labored to dismiss the sense that Rove's resignation underscores a lame-duck presidency, even as it felt like an era was coming to an end on the South Lawn yesterday morning.

"'Karl Rove is moving on down the road,' Bush said as the two appeared together for an emotional coda to their 14-year political partnership. A few moments later, he turned to Rove and added: 'I'll be on the road behind you here in a little bit.'"

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "At his emotional goodbye with George W. Bush on the South lawn of the White House Monday, Karl Rove painted a portrait of a presidency made of strong vision and epochal goals. . . .

"As the country heads into the 2008 election, the public's verdict on Bush and Rove's vision may not be nearly as kind. With poll numbers stacked against the GOP nationwide, 2008 could become as great a rejection of signature Bush policies and his party as the 2006 mid-term election was. Thanks to that threat, the post-Rove White House already finds itself preoccupied with extracting itself from the shoals where Bush and Rove's grand visions have foundered. In that sense, the Bush administration has already begun repudiating the grandest ideas, and the legacy, of the man who was its chief architect."

John Whitesides writes for Reuters: "The resignation of Karl Rove, architect of President George W. Bush's election triumphs and a crucial behind-the-scenes policy guru, is the latest sign of the White House's diminished agenda and shattered dreams of a Republican super-majority, analysts said. . . .

"'At this point all they are trying to do is save some of the signature items from their first term and hand off the war in Iraq to the next guy in better shape than it looks today,' . . . said Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Dallas."

Dave Montgomery and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Karl Rove's imminent departure as President Bush's closest White House adviser is the latest and most dramatic signal that Bush himself is heading toward the exit as Americans prepare to choose his replacement next year."

An Opportunity?

Michael Kranish of the Boston Globe is an outlier in raising the possibility that Rove's departure could lead to a course correction: "The departure of Karl Rove, the longtime adviser to President Bush who announced yesterday that he is leaving at the end of this month, could provide an opening for the White House and the Republican Party to move away from Rove's signature policy of relying on the party base and appeal more to independents who will probably determine the outcome of the 2008 election, analysts said yesterday."

But, as Kranish himself notes: "It is not clear, however, that Bush will forge a new path away from the influential adviser and friend of more than 30 years."

What Went Wrong?

I wrote in yesterday's column about what I called Rove's dismal legacy.

Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "What, exactly, did the architect build?

"His advocates credit him with devising a winning strategy twice in a row for a presidential candidate who seemed to start out with myriad weaknesses. His detractors blame Rove for a style of politics that deepened divisions in the country, even after the unifying attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Both sides attributed outsize qualities to him, and he enjoyed mythic status for much of the Bush presidency.

"But few people -- including his Republican allies -- believe Rove succeeded in what he set as his ultimate goal: creating a long-lasting GOP majority in the country that could reverse the course set 70 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt."

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "Rove's relentlessly polarizing tactics and his over-the-top use of government power for political purposes, critics say, were bound to wear out their welcome with a fundamentally pragmatic and moderate electorate.

"'Karl will always be known as a brilliant political operative who has a great tactical sense,' said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, 'but tactics only get you so far. Did they change politics forever? No.'

"Fabrizio asked: 'At the end of the day, is the party better off today than it was when it was taken over six or seven years ago?' He believes Rove's strategy has alienated middle-of-the-road voters and left the party in worse shape. . . .

"Rove's defenders argue that Republicans' current troubles -- sagging presidential approval ratings, loss of the House and Senate, a clamorous fight over who the party will nominate to run for president in 2008 -- all stem from a single cause: the deeply unpopular war in Iraq; not from Rove or his methods."

Bush's Reinforcer

Jim Rutenberg and Steven Lee Myers, writing in the New York Times, call attention to Rove's insistence in his Wall Street Journal interview that Republicans will hold the White House in 2008.

"It is that sort of buoyant talk -- at a time of bipartisan consensus that Republicans face an extraordinarily tough presidential election year -- for which Mr. Rove has become known, especially within the confines of the buffeted White House. It was reminiscent of Mr. Rove's predictions, repeated by Mr. Bush, that Republicans would hold Congress last fall, leading to a question posed to him by a reporter aboard Air Force One, 'How did you get the math wrong in '06?' (Mr. Rove replied, 'They were very close elections.')

"Current and former officials say Mr. Rove speaks just as optimistically inside the White House, reinforcing the president's similarly positive view, which outsiders have found hard to fathom."

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek about the "brook-no-dissent ethos that Rove brought to the Bush White House" that "puts in some context Rove's cheery comments. . . .

"[F]rom the day he went to work in the White House, Karl Rove has been Bush's enabler as much as his master strategist--a key adviser who saw no subtleties or nuance, brushed aside internal qualms and ferociously went after critics who raised any questions about the president's policies.

"This was especially true of Iraq -- the defining initiative of the Bush presidency -- in which Rove's behind-the-scenes role in the selling and spinning of the war was far more significant than is commonly known."

Isikoff then goes on to chronicle how "Rove's behind-the-scenes role in the selling and spinning of the war was far more significant than is commonly known."

What's almost most astonishing is that the ostensible creator of Bush's bubble continues to flatly deny that it exists.

In a fascinating roundtable interview with reporters on Air Force One yesterday, Rove was asked who would now provide counsel to the president.

"MR. ROVE: Look, the great thing is the President creates an environment in which people feel very confident. . . . where they understand speaking plainly and candidly about what you think is what he expects and what he rewards. . . .

"The President is really -- look, he is focused on setting the tone. He understands how vital it is that a President get unvarnished advice."

Rove's Rules

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "Certainly, Mr. Rove has to a considerable extent changed the way presidential politics are played. Modeled on his example, campaigns have become more disciplined in driving simple, often negative messages. They begin in trying to identify the vulnerabilities of potential opponents, and they do extensive negative research as they prepare to exploit those vulnerabilities early and often.

"They seek to work out long-term, month-by-month game plans and stick with them, even in difficult times. And they methodically use marketing and other data to identify potential supporters and get them to the polls with an efficiency that had never been seen before."

Peter S. Canellos writes in his Boston Globe column: "[T]here can be little doubt that the administration's personality -- combative, unyielding, indulgent of its supporters and contemptuous of its opponents -- was shaped in large part by Rove's political philosophy.

"As a campaign strategist, Rove will always be remembered for breaking with conventional wisdom in two major respects. First, he pioneered the strategy of attacking rivals in their areas of strength, rather than weakness. . . .

"The second way in which Rove challenged political wisdom was in concentrating on rallying a candidate's 'base' of supporters rather than try to appeal to moderates. Most consultants recommend that a candidate with a strong reputation as a liberal or a conservative should take for granted a certain number of core supporters and tack to the middle.

"Rove, by contrast, noted that turning out core supporters is as important to winning as attracting new converts. A candidate wins the loyalty of core supporters by taking controversial stands and sticking with them -- another hallmark of Bush's presidency.

"Bush's willingness to stick to his guns has won him respect. But it also has driven a wedge through the country in a post-9/11 period when a political consensus similar to that of the Cold War seemed not only possible but likely."

Rove: It's the Democrats' Fault

In interviews yesterday, Rove repeatedly denied that he advocated divisive politics.

John D. McKinnon and Jackie Calmes write in the Wall Street Journal: "In a telephone interview from Air Force One as he flew with the president to Texas, Mr. Rove dismissed the widely held image of himself as a political divider. 'I love the myth that the nature of politics as practiced by us . . . is focusing on a narrow group,' he said. In fact, he said, 'it's been taking the energy of those [in the base] and building on it and expanding it outward.' He is glad Democrats have taken the notion seriously, however, because 'it's gotten people saying, 'We should be focusing on the base of our party, like MoveOn.org and the Pink Ladies,' Mr. Rove said, the latter a reference to a women's antiwar group called Code Pink."

Conservative San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders asked Rove yesterday why he thought Bush failed to achieve his promise to be a uniter not a divider. Rove blamed it on the Democrats.

"'I think a number of Democrats never accepted (Bush) as legitimate and instead adopted a strategy of blind obstructionism,' he answered.

"Moreover, some Democrats 'hated' Bush, and they were joined by a group of Democrats who 'for tactical reasons, said that we can never give (Bush) a political victory, and anything that passes any part of his agenda is a political victory for him and we can't tolerate that.' . . .

"Did the Bush administration try hard enough to reach across the aisle?

"'You know, you'd be shocked and surprised to learn how much the president reached out to Democrats,' Rove said.

"Rove faults the Democrats for their using a 'deeply personal' tone."

Rove's Personality

Holly Bailey writes in Newsweek: "Privately, Rove was considered a man to be feared, by both Democrats and Republicans. Members of Congress, always anonymously, whispered about Rove's threats and intimidation when it came to backing Bush's policies. Rep. Tom Tancredo, one of the few Republicans to publicly complain about Rove, told reporters about a 2002 run-in with Bush's strategist over immigration reform. Tancredo, who opposes Bush's plan, told Newsweek Rove warned him 'never to darken the doorstep of the White House again' after he went on TV to bash immigration reform."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "Rove can be expected to paint a heroic self-portrait in the memoir he is now said to be writing. It seems unlikely he'll fare as well in the accounts of his colleagues. Though Rove sometimes drew up reading lists for lower-level staffers or gave them advice on places to go on vacation in Texas, he will be better remembered for intermittently exploding into purple-faced rages. To talk off-the-record to senior White House aides over the years about their constant, relentless battles with Rove was like listening in on marriage counseling. Many people inside and outside the White House feared Rove, a number of them truly admired him (professionally and personally), but of very few can it be said that they ever trusted him."

Card on Rove's Value

On CNN yesterday, former chief of staff Andrew Card praised Rove for his ability to get Bush to relax.

"Karl is very, very smart. He's highly ethical and very responsible, but he also knows how to make sure the president relaxes.

"He used to challenge the president with jokes and book reading contests, and not only would he challenge him on policy, but he would challenge him to the point that he could relax. That was very important."

What's Next for Rove?

Ken Herman of Cox News Service quotes Rove: "'We plan to make a transition to Texas but recognize I've got to get gainful employment,' Rove said.

"His time, he said, will be split between Texas, Washington, D.C., and Florida for the next year or two. A book and perhaps some teaching (Rove has been an instructor at the University of Texas) are top possibilities, and he will be involved with the George W. Bush presidential library to be built in Dallas.

"Rove said he is not interested in working on another presidential campaign. He said he also expects to hit the speaking circuit, where he can command hefty fees."

The Investigations Continue

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "Congressional Democrats said yesterday that they will continue to demand the testimony of senior White House adviser Karl Rove about a range of sensitive policy matters even after he leaves the West Wing at the end of the month. . . .

"Legal experts were divided on whether Rove's resignation heightens the likelihood of his testimony."

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "A White House spokesman said Monday that the privilege claim would not be affected by Mr. Rove's resignation. The spokesman, Tony Fratto, said, 'The privilege assertions remain intact.'"

From a statement by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy: "The list of senior White House and Justice Department officials who have resigned during the course of these congressional investigations continues to grow, and today, Mr. Rove added his name to that list. There is a cloud over this White House, and a gathering storm. A similar cloud envelops Mr. Rove, even as he leaves the White House."

Baker and Fletcher write in The Washington Post that Rove knows it's not over.

"'I realize that some of the Democrats are Captain Ahab and I'm the great white whale,' he said. 'I noticed the other day some Democratic staffers were quoted calling me the big fish. Well, I'm Moby-Dick and they're after me.'"

Judy Keen and Jill Lawrence write in USA Today that Rove "dismissed suggestions that he had become a liability to Bush in Congress' ongoing investigation of the dismissal of U.S. attorneys last year and the grand jury inquiry into the leaking of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. . . .

"'We live in a poisonous atmosphere in which Democrats . . . are engaged in a wave of investigations and requests for documents that ill-serve the country and serve as an excuse for them to investigate rather than legislate,' Rove said."

A Biographer's View

"Bush's Brain" coauthor Wayne Slater answers questions on Newsweek.com:

Newsweek: "There's been a lot of speculation about this, but what do you think are the reasons Karl Rove chose to retire at this point in time?"

Slater: "It was time for Karl to go. There really are no more accomplishments for this administration. All presidents are lame ducks at the end. And if it wasn't clear during the '06 midterms that the Bush administration wouldn't be accomplishing big items in the last two years, it is clear now with Rove's departure. . . . In large part I think Karl sees his role in the years ahead as the most authoritative explainer, or some would say apologist, for the Bush administration."

Newsweek: "If these two operated as a collective unit, who then is to blame for what went wrong in the second term in office, Bush or Rove?"

Slater: "Part of Rove's legacy, and by default Bush's, is that Karl pursued a politics of division. Success was determined by a political architecture; you assembled your group and fought against the other side. Rove raised it to a level of efficiency that we have never seen before. . . . The problem with that was that Rove was the exponent of a politics that proved difficult -- if not impossible -- to govern."

Newsweek: "So Bush is blameless?"

Slater: "No. Bush's major failure is something that's been with him from the beginning. He surrounds himself with a few people that are loyal and he pays no attention to anyone outside that room. And so, with Karl Rove, who was the closest of allies, he got advice that he didn't have the ability to question."

Editorial Watch

The Washington Post: "Mr. Bush won elections as governor and president because he positioned himself, under Mr. Rove's tutelage, as a 'compassionate conservative' and a 'uniter, not a divider.' After Sept. 11, 2001, not just the whole country but most of the world was prepared to follow Mr. Bush on those terms.

"But when polling data showed Mr. Rove that there was more to be gained, politically, by intensifying support among the conservative Republican base, Mr. Bush abandoned persuading the middle and focused on motivating the right. Thus were born a host of policies -- on Social Security, Guantanamo, stem cell research, same-sex marriage and so on -- that deepened the country's polarization and helped alienate even old friends around the globe. . . .

"[Rove] should be judged on his own terms: as the would-be architect of a long-lasting Republican majority. . . . The GOP's wipeout in 2006 would suggest that Mr. Rove did not achieve this goal, notwithstanding his brave parting words about Republican victory in 2008. And if the manufactured polarization of the Bush-Rove years did not even serve its ostensible purpose, then what was the good of it?"

The New York Times: "President Bush took a risk when he put someone so focused on politics as blood sport at the center of his White House. Once he did, he had an obligation to ensure that Mr. Rove understood that his job was to promote the interests of the American people -- not solely the Republican Party. Instead, Mr. Rove used his position and power to relentlessly pursue his declared goal of a permanent Republican majority. . . .

"Congress needs to use all its power to bring Mr. Rove back to Washington to testify -- in public and under oath --about how he used his office to put politics above the interests of the American people."

The Los Angeles Times: "In saying good riddance to Karl Rove, his critics need to remember that he had only the influence that Bush allowed him. Rove may have accused the Democrats of having a pre-9/11 worldview, but it was Bush who said: 'The party of FDR, the party of Harry Truman, has become the party of cut and run.' Rove is leaving. Will Rove-ism remain?"

USA Today: "The same slashing, divisive tactics that Rove perfected in winning elections came to characterize Bush's legislative efforts, to far lesser effect. . . .

"The biggest drag on Bush and the Republicans -- the quagmire in Iraq -- was not primarily of Rove's making. But where he could have made a difference, he too often opted for confrontation that sharpened party differences and bled away the chances of bipartisan cooperation on the toughest problems facing the nation."

Newsday: "It would be good . . . if Rove's leaving marked an end to his signature divisive, brass-knuckle style of political warfare. That may be too much to ask in a nation cleaved by real ideological differences. But it was Rove who was credited -- or blamed, depending on who's talking -- for Bush's decision to govern with the same us-versus-them campaign style that energized his conservative base. The nation would have been better served by more pragmatic problem solving."

The Fresno Bee: "Bush built the White House structure around Rove to ensure that partisan politics would drive policy, with a number of insidious results. With Rove signing off on personnel picks and presidential appointments, important positions have been filled by political hacks. . . .

"In the end, all of this is more about Bush than about Karl Rove. The over-politicization of the White House is Bush's doing -- and will be his legacy."

The Austin American-Statesman: "Rove leaves a White House that is in a mess to spend more time with his wife and son and to write a book that no doubt will explain how President Bush pretty much did everything right, even if he is the most unpopular chief executive since Richard Nixon."

The Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Rove is no Merlin or Rasputin, as much as liberals and some reporters want to believe it. He is above all a George Bush man. His rare mastery of history, demographics and policy made him a formidable political force, and we suspect it is his success far more than his methods that infuriates his critics."

Opinion Watch

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "I don't believe for a minute that Rove really intends to withdraw from public life. . . . Rove's new job will be to put lipstick on Bush's hideous legacy -- and, in the process, freshen up his own. . . .

"Rove was very good at what he did. The problem, of course, is that what Rove did and how he did it were awful for the nation."

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his syndicated opinion column: "What went wrong? Rove's key missed opportunity came after 9/11. Instead of using the period of national unity that followed the terrorist attacks to build a broad Republican coalition rooted in Dwight Eisenhower-style moderation, Rove sought to create a narrower, but tougher ideological majority willing to pursue such conservative dreams as the partial privatization of Social Security.

"But a '51 percent strategy' leaves no room for error, and Bush proved very error-prone. Relentlessly attacking Democrats on national security meant that Bush's opponents had no stake in his Iraq policy when things started falling apart."

Grover G. Norquist writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "Rove's vision of the modern Republican Party as the dominant governing power will perhaps take longer to establish than he had hoped. But it is more likely and will come sooner for his life and work."

David Frum writes in a New York Times op-ed: "This was a politics of party-building and coalition-assembly. It was a politics that aimed at winning elections. It was a politics that treated the problems of governance as secondary. But of course governance is what incumbents get judged on -- and since 2004, the negative verdict on President Bush's governance has created a lethal political environment for Republican candidates."

John Nichols blogs for the Nation: "Karl Rove's never-particularly brilliant career as a manipulator of the political processes of the nation will end as it began: mired in scandal and failure."

George Packer blogs for the New Yorker: "Karl Rove's resignation brought to mind a conversation I had a few weeks ago with an Administration official who genuinely wanted to hear my account of why the Iraq war has gone so badly. In a word, I said, 'politics.' At every turn, the White House has tried to use the war, and the larger war on terror, to consolidate power, to reward ideological and political loyalists, to win electoral advantage, to push the Democrats into a corner, to divide the country into patriots and defeatists. President Bush insisted on pursuing a highly partisan domestic agenda rather than unite the country around the war in the spirit of F.D.R. . . . So many disastrous wartime decisions can be traced back to the original sin: policy mattered less than politics. The message in Washington was more real than anything happening in Iraq. . . .

"The Rove approach to governing helped lose Iraq. That may be the most enduring legacy of this supposed political genius."

Andrew Sullivan blogs for the Atlantic: "Rove is one of the worst political strategists in recent times. He took a chance to realign the country and to unite it in a war -- and threw it away in a binge of hate-filled niche campaigning, polarization and short-term expediency. His divisive politics and elevation of corrupt mediocrities to every branch of government has turned an entire generation off the conservative label. And rightly so."

Sidney Blumenthal writes for Salon: "Rove's merger of politics and policy was an effort to forge a total one-party state. While he is acclaimed as a political strategist, his true innovation was in governing. He sought to subordinate the entire federal government to his goal of creating a permanent Republican majority. Every department and agency has been subject to an intense and thorough politicization. . . . Cheney and Rove acted as the pincers of the unitary executive. While Cheney sought to concentrate unaccountable power in the presidency, Rove brought down the anvil of politics on the professional career staff."

Lou Dubose writes for Salon: "If Karl Rove was responsible for the remarkable ascent of the Republican Party since 2000, he is equally responsible for what is beginning to look like its vertical collapse. With the Christian right deeply disappointed at Bush and in search of a candidate for the 2008 election, economic conservatives alienated by the White House's failure to impose fiscal discipline on the Congress when the Republicans were in charge of both houses, and congressional Republicans caught in the undertow of a failing president's failed war, the party Rove predicted would become a permanent majority is no more."

David Corn blogs for the Nation that "leaving is too good for Rove. He was Bush's partner in the Iraq war, yet he (like other Bush aides, including, most recently, Dan Bartlett) are abandoning ship before the fight is done. Rove has argued that the Iraq war is essential for the survival of the United States (that is, for all of our families). So how can he walk away with the war not won?"

Rove, Viciousness and the Press

Marc Ambinder blogs for the Atlantic: "Boy, did Karl Rove get in his gut the biases, predilections, worldviews, habits, ticks and insecurities of the national media. The first Bush campaign -- and the administration in the first few years -- consciously worked the press as simply another agent of influence. Another part of Rove's realignment theory: delegitimize, decertify and discombobulate the press; control it with psychological power; reduce its influence on the political process.

"Rove in particular knew how to massage the egos of high-powered analysts, and these Rove hagiographers ought to be ready to evaluate Rove, now, in the twilight of the career. But it's to Rove's credit as a political strategist that he so deftly managed the press."

Jay Rosen writes that political reporters admired how savvy Karl Rove was -- and were therefore willing to overlook his easily documented viciousness.

"Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness -- that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political -- is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain."

What the press didn't expose, Rosen argues, was the side of Rove described in a November 2004 article in the Atlantic. In that story, Joshua Green wrote that "as I interviewed people who knew Rove, they brought up examples of unscrupulous tactics -- some of them breathtaking -- as a matter of course."

But Rove "seems to understand -- indeed, to count on -- the media's unwillingness or inability, whether from squeamishness, laziness, or professional caution, ever to give a full estimate of him or his work. It is ultimately not just Rove's skill but his character that allows him to perform on an entirely different plane. Along with remarkable strategic skills, he has both an understanding of the media's unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others."

James Moore blogs on Huffingtonpost.com: "When I first started reporting on Karl Rove in the late 1970s, I was impressed by his singularity of purpose and his willingness to say or do whatever was necessary to succeed. This amorality, a complete lack of concern for right or wrong or harm done, will be his legacy in the American political process. Lives and careers might be destroyed, great institutions compromised, the truth sullied until it is unrecognizable, but all of that will be acceptable collateral damage to Karl as long as he and his party and candidates have won the day. . . .

"[I] am confident history will condemn Rove and view him as a man who divided his own country to win and cared not a scintilla about the consequences of his actions beyond political victory. I have been accused for more than 25 years of overstating Karl's importance and his influence but I am certain history will judge him the most profoundly disturbing political force our country has seen in almost 100 years."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart's heartfelt advice to Rove: "Ask for forgiveness."

Cartoon Watch

Views of Rove's departure from: Tom Toles; John Sherffius; Jim Morin; Mike Luckovich; Tony Auth; Jack Higgins; Jeff Danziger; Dana Summers; Jim Borgman; David Horsey; Dwane Powell; Bill Mitchell; and Rex Babin.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive