Another Rove Fake-Out?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, August 20, 2007; 1:50 PM

I'm used to my readers ascribing all sorts of convoluted motivations to White House political mastermind Karl Rove. But now several upstanding mainstream media outlets are raising the possibility that Rove's attacks on Hillary Clinton are a colossal head fake.

Ever since he announced his resignation in the Wall Street Journal last week, President Bush's close adviser has been attacking Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, right and left. She's a "fatally flawed candidate," Rove told Journal editorial-page editor Paul A. Gigot. She's weak on national security, he told Rush Limbaugh. She carries too much baggage from her husband's White House years, he told Steve Holland of Reuters.

But taking Rove at face value has often proved to be a big mistake. And on Sunday morning, just before Rove set off on a round of television interviews, Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times kicked off a round of informed MSM conspiracy-theorizing.

"Why did Rove, who often stays in the background, step forward to deliver such public attacks -- especially when the Democrats haven't begun to choose their presidential candidate for 2008 and when the general election is more than a year away?

"The answer might seem obvious: Rove saw Clinton as a formidable opponent and wanted to get his licks in early.

"For high-level campaign professionals like Rove, however, that kind of thinking may be too simple.

"The decision to focus on the New York senator to the exclusion of other potentially formidable Democratic standard-bearers such as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois offered a rare glimpse into a world where things are not always what they seem -- the world of modern-day electioneering. . . .

"In this case, Rove's weeklong broadside against Clinton . . . looks suspiciously like an exercise in reverse psychology that his team employed three years ago when it was preparing for President Bush's reelection bid."

Wallsten recalls what Rove lieutenant Matthew Dowd apparently acknowledged during a conference at Harvard shortly after the 2004 election. During the primaries, Rove was considerably more afraid of then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina than of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Dowd said. "Whomever we attacked was going to be emboldened in Democratic primary voters' minds," Dowd said.

So they attacked Kerry.

Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press picked up the new meme, writing: "Master GOP strategist Karl Rove won't let up in his attacks on Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the intriguing question is why.

"Is it a sign that Rove, who masterminded Bush's two presidential victories, is worried about Clinton? Or a calculation that the GOP attacks will get Democrats to rally to her side because the GOP would prefer not to take on Democrats John Edwards or Barack Obama?"

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