What Will They Do Without Karl?

If Bush’s Brain is removed, it’s gonna hurt.

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What’s going to happen to Karl? That question was being asked in the White House and throughout Washington today as the president’s top political adviser appeared for a fourth time before the grand jury in the CIA leak probe. That he answered questions for four and a half hours only increased speculation that Rove might be the target of an indictment when Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald wraps up his work later this month. If he is indicted, it is almost certain that the man sometimes called Bush’s Brain will have to resign. White House officials will not talk about the case but do not challenge the logical notion that Chief of Staff Andy Card is already thinking through how to fill Rove’s shoes. Card can shuffle around his duties into different organizational boxes, but it won’t do much good. Rove can’t be replaced. His departure would create a “black hole,” says one official who works with Rove closely. “He’s irreplaceable.” Here are the five ways a Rove departure would hurt the Bush White House most:

1. Repairing the Right. George Bush must heal his breach with conservatives over his nomination of Harriet Miers. If anyone knows the road back to reconciliation, it’s Rove, who is Bush’s primary ambassador to them. Rove wasn’t able to hypnotize the president’s base into supporting the president’s pick, but given how opaque Miers is, that was a near impossibility. However, Rove does know what Miers can say that will send soothing signals to that constituency. That might relieve the political pressure enough to allow GOP senators to rally around her. After Miers is confirmed or rejected, Rove could call on his lifetime of experience working with the leaders of various GOP factions to develop a program that might placate them. His many years in direct-mail advertising also taught Rove how to appeal directly to the conservative base—something no one else around Bush understands as deeply.

2. Afternoons With Turd Blossom. President Bush has relied on Karl for 25 years. They’ve won two gubernatorial races and two presidential contests together. The elections are over, but the contests aren’t: Bush trusts Karl more than any other adviser about what political tactics are necessary to pass legislation and push whatever is left of his second-term agenda. Rove knows the pulse of the country and the political pulse in Washington among politicians and interest groups and lobbyists. Other advisers make the same study, but Bush doesn’t have the same instinctive trust in their judgments. Rove also thinks for his boss, anticipating what the president will want before Bush has even opened his briefing book. Remove Rove as filter and there are likely to be many more instances when Bush sternly asks aides: “Is this something you want to be wasting the president’s time with?” And Bush will no doubt miss his whipping boy. For all his power, Rove is often the target of Bush’s ire, which is how he earned the Bush nickname “Turd Blossom.” The president chews him out because he knows Rove will snap into action and “get after it,” as Bush likes to put it.

3. Whack by Proxy. When a senator or Cabinet official gets a call from Karl Rove, he makes time to take it. Only Dick Cheney has more throw-weight as a stand-in for the president. Rove also knows that Washington shiatsu requires finesse as well as power. He knows where the political pressure points are found: what member needs what program in his district; what staffer can undermine the efforts of a recalcitrant Cabinet official, and which lobbyist needs to be invited to the Christmas party.

More cartoons on Karl Rove by today’s top cartoonists here.

4. BlackBerry Boy. Though Rove has been distracted, a few of his colleagues wouldn’t mind if he were a little more so. He still sends BlackBerry messages at a thumb-spraining pace. Rove is in the middle of every important West Wing decision: where the president goes, what he says, and how he says it. In addition to his official meetings and duties, he darts off schedule to put out little fires. Yesterday Rove was zipping out e-mails prompting aides to respond more quickly and forcefully after Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid attacked the White House on its failures in Iraq. And he beat back chatter that Bush might withdraw the Miers nomination by chatting with conservative blogger Hugh Hewitt.

5. 2006. George Bush and Karl Rove came to Washington in 2000 to launch not only a presidency but a Republican revolution that would keep the GOP in power for a generation. During the off-year election in 2002, the two gambled by sending Bush to campaign in close races. It worked: They picked up congressional seats, reversing the historical trend that the party in control of the White House loses seats in its first midterm election. Now the Bush-Rove dream is in big trouble. The president’s approval ratings are at their lowest level, and a recent poll showed that by 48 percent to 38 percent of Americans would prefer that Democrats control Congress.

Now, Republicans don’t need Rove to do everything. A lot of the infrastructure of campaigning is already being handled by his acolytes and disciples. But late in the cycle, when a fingertip feel for which races could use more of the president’s face time or scarce GOP money, Rove’s experience and intuition would be crucial. Depending on what Patrick Fitzgerald is thinking right now, they may or not be available.