"Grossly excessive." That was Vice President Dick Cheney's succinct comment to me in the spring of 2002 when I asked him what he'd thought of National Journal's cover story on Karl Rove. In hindsight, Cheney had a point.
Fifteen months into the tenure of the current occupant of the Oval Office, National Journal had not only devoted some 5,900 words explaining Rove, we also put his mug on the cover -- nearly in life-size. It was the full monty treatment of a White House aide. To NJ's White House correspondents (Alexis Simendinger and me) it seemed fitting: I was not yet working on "Boy Genius," a book on Rove's career that I would co-author later that year with two Texas writers. Nor had the Democrats yet decided that Rove's middle name (Christian) was a cruel and possibly blasphemous joke, because they thought Rove was quite possibly the Antichrist. Still, George W. Bush would never have been governor of Texas, let alone the 43rd president of the United States without Rove -- on that everyone seemed to agree -- so why not profile the man behind the man?
The carnival of coverage concerning Rove's impending departure as deputy White House chief of staff this week has brought back to mind Cheney's droll description. The news accounts and accompanying commentary on Rove's resignation haven't been wrong, really, they've just been predictable -- and, yes, excessive: Rove invented Bush, who will be lost without him. Rove's departure proves that Bush is the lamest of the lame ducks. Iraq derailed his visions of a grand realignment. Rove's exit tolls the death knell for compassionate conservatism, along with the current Republican era itself. Rove is leaving in shame, amidst evidence of failure.
That sort of thing.
But let's be contrarian for a minute and channel our inner Cheney -- the seasoned, skeptical Dick Cheney of yesteryear, anyway. Take a deep breath, and try to put Karl Rove in some rational perspective.
For starters, he's certainly not going to disappear. In the first of his exit interviews, with Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal, Rove goaded Clintonistas by characterizing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., as a "tough, tenacious, fatally flawed" presidential candidate. He repeated the "fatally flawed" description on Wednesday in a rambling radio interview with Rush Limbaugh, adding a 265-word critique on her Senate votes on health care issues that sounded anything but spontaneous. In other words, Rove is still in the game, the one he actually knows how to play: elective politics.
Even if Rove wanted to leave the stage, the Democrats wouldn't let him. They can't help themselves. Rove, quite simply, makes Democrats cuckoo. For liberals, Rove's personality is a pestilential stew of arrogance, smugness and, most troubling of all, ruthless efficiency. Their hostility dates to his days in Texas, when Rove systematically and successfully went about the business of denuding the place of white Democratic elected officials. It continued in South Carolina, during the Republican primary of 2000 with the anonymous immolation of John McCain, through the Florida recount, and on into 2002 when Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia was leveled by a hard-edged GOP campaign. Democrats tell themselves that they need to be -- and could be -- as cutthroat as Rove, but this is self-serving to the point of self-delusion. (For pure demagoguery, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were pikers compared to the Democrats' 2000 anti-Bush radio spots financed by the NAACP.)
A more visceral reason Democrats loathe Karl Rove is his knack for taking something they are proud of (Al Gore's experience, for instance, or John Kerry's war record, tolerance on gay rights), and somehow making it a liability. They fear he will do that with Hillary Clinton -- that he's already doing it to Hillary Clinton. And so the congressional investigations aimed at Rove will continue long after the point they are helpful to the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee. This is not a new obsession. In 2004, Howard Dean, Kerry and rest of the band of Democratic contenders often sounded as though they were running against Rove instead of Bush. Principals shouldn't run against staffers. Democrats have trouble with this concept, if Rove is that staffer. This week, Barack Obama whipped out a hostile statement commemorating Rove's departure. On and on it goes.
Rove's brilliance as a campaign operative did not translate to policy successes. This truism has been noted this week, but except for a timely piece in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, it has not been examined very deeply. The shorthand version is that the political hack failed at governing because policy prescriptions are more subtle than attack ads. The truth about Rove's failures inside the government is more complicated than that -- and more inexplicable.
Rove's initiatives didn't fail because he didn't master the policy details: He can extemporaneously give a Fidel Castro-length speech on the actuarial problems plaguing Social Security. He's not wrong about that -- it's straight math, and the numbers don't lie. But the Bush second-term agenda failed because Rove, the political maestro, didn't master the politics of passing legislation and keeping everyone happy in the aftermath. In the first term, prior to 9/11, Bush spent most of his time promoting two ambitious domestic policy priorities. One of them, across-the-board tax cuts, was venerable old-line conservatism. It passed, narrowly, on a virtual party-line vote. The other first-term success story, the No Child Left Behind Act, was a signature initiative of compassionate conservatism. It passed with overwhelming support in both parties. To obtain that result, Team Bush made funding promises (that were only partially kept, thereby later alienating key Democrats), and a huge concession: Namely, stripping private school vouchers out of the bill.
In the second term, the old-line conservative issue was fixing Social Security, and the compassionate conservative item was immigration reform. Both of these were in Rove's bailiwick, and had Bush's total backing. Bush had said at the outset of his second term that he'd spend his political capital getting them enacted, but neither became law. Why? Well, Bush's falling stock because of Iraq had a lot to do with it, but so did the administration's imperious treatment of congressional leaders, some of it by Rove, and its amnesia when it came to compromise. Democrats, pointedly not invited to participate in the legislative process, took the hint and refused to use up any of their own political capital to help Bush. Republicans, weakened over the war, would only do so much. Few Capitol Hill lawmakers felt they owed Bush -- or Rove -- anything. This is the result of the malpractice of politics, not policy. If Rove was as good as his reputation, it wouldn't have gone that way.
Rove's partisanship was a costly indulgence even when both chambers of Congress were controlled by Republicans. "Karl is too partisan," a White House aide once told Alexis and me. This aide still reveres Rove, but his partisanship became untenable once Democrats took over the House last year. Forget what the 2006 midterms did to Rove's mystique as a campaign miracle worker; Machiavelli himself couldn't have saved the GOP with the headlines out of Iraq.
The more tangible problem inside the White House was that Rove's approach, and his presence, made it more difficult for the chief executive to work with the opposition party and the other branch of government. Understood in this light, Rove's White House leave-taking may be what in baseball lingo is called "a trade that helps both teams." Unfettered from the niceties of being a public servant, Rove is free to talk openly about Democrats in the same unfiltered way they've talked about him (and Bush) for the last seven years. It might be entertaining -- and highly effective.
Meanwhile, inside the administration's gates, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten may discover that he now has the authority that goes with his title. Bolten is a capable operator, and someone who has no known philosophical objections to reopening Bush's lines of communication to Democrats. Maybe it's too late for that. Or maybe it's about time.