Rove's Dilemma

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, August 15, 2007; 12:40 PM

Karl Rove and President Bush have been essentially of one mind for as long as Bush has been on the national stage. So Rove's abrupt separation from the White House doesn't just leave Bush missing his ostensible "brain" -- it also puts Rove in unfamiliar territory: His goals aren't necessarily the same as his longtime client's.

Rove is widely expected to channel his prodigious energies into one last campaign -- this one to shape history. But he's going to have to decide what's more important: Bush's legacy or his own? They're not necessarily the same thing anymore.

Rove's tarnished reputation as a political genius would be considerably rehabilitated if the Republican Party, against all odds, managed to keep control of the White House in 2008. But if there's any chance of that happening, the GOP is going to have to run against Bush's legacy almost as aggressively as the Democrats are.

So if Rove as expected cleaves to his unfailing defense of everything Bush -- and if anybody in his party listens to him -- he may end up congealing the prevailing wisdom of the last several days: That he was, in the end, a colossal failure.

Bush as Albatross

At this point, it's practically a given that Republican candidates will have to distance themselves from Bush to have any chance of winning in 2008.

Edward Luce wrote recently in the Financial Times: "The unpopularity of America's 43rd president -- even among diehard church-going Republicans of the Midwest -- is more than just a background irritant for Republicans vying to succeed him in 2009. Mr Bush is a millstone around their necks.

"Unlike the Democratic party, which is significantly outshining its rival in fundraising and in the polls, Republicans have a longstanding culture of deference towards their leader in the White House. That works when the president is Ronald Reagan, who remained popular until he stepped down. . . .

"But when their president is sinking in the eyes of the majority, it presents a sharp dilemma. 'We are caught in a bind,' says a senior staffer on one of the campaigns. 'We cannot attack George Bush because we would be punished for disloyalty by the party base. And we cannot endorse him because that would be suicide. So we tip-toe around.'"

Ronald Brownstein wrote in his Los Angeles Times column last month: "Whatever Bush does in Iraq, Republicans next year will probably need to paddle away from him much more energetically than they have so far."

In his Washington Post opinion column, David S. Broder last week warned Republican candidates not to forget a key fact: "The one thing on which the polls are clearest today is that this country is ready to turn the page on the Bush-Cheney experience. If ever there has been an administration that has outstayed its welcome, exhausted its energies and spent most of its original ideas, it is this one. People on the inside are holding on by their thumbs, and the country's patience is about exhausted."

And on the Chris Matthews Show recently, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks let the secret slip out: "You got to remember a lot of Republicans hate Bush," he told Matthews. "They think Bush is incompetent and is destroying their party. . . .

"I was just up in New Hampshire. The questions were -- the questions, 'We've got a draft dodger in the White House.' These were Republicans talking about a Republican. 'We've got to restore some honesty to the White House.' Republican talking about a Republican president. The atmosphere in the Republican Party is not pro-Bush."

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