If Karl Rove, political genius, hasn’t been paying attention to politics, then what has he been doing? This week, when it was announced that the president’s senior adviser will no longer be overseeing day-to-day policy operations at the White House so he can focus exclusively on his political portfolio, Bush allies hailed the chance to reverse all the dismal poll ratings the president and Congress have been seeing lately. But if just part of Rove’s attention got the Republicans in this much trouble, what will his undivided attention do to them?
Never mind logic. There’s something in the Rove shakeup storyline for everyone. It supports the White House narrative that Josh Bolten is bringing big change to the administration. The press loves power in flux (Bolten up; Rove down) and political desperation (Republican congressional control in peril in the 2006 election). Plus, any reporter who hasn’t had Rove return his call can stick a pin in him on A1. Republicans use the move in two ways: to explain failures of the past (Rove was too busy with, um, policy), and to kindle hope for the future (Rove’s on the case!). Democrats like to see the White House in disarray, so they’re happy. What’s more, Rove’s new, pure focus will allow them to blame their own continuing troubles on their enemy’s supposed political genius. This is one of the Democrats’ favorite myths: It’s not their party’s fecklessness, or their own soggy leadership, that hurts them. It’s Karl’s powders and potions.
But what does the move really mean? There’s no question it was a public slap for Rove and an admission that his talents have limits. Rove would have preferred, no doubt, to leave the White House with a reputation for mastering policy intricacies as completely as he had the political ones. But even after the “shake-up,” he’s still going to be mighty powerful. “Karl could be the intern coordinator and his influence would be undiminished,” said one top administration official, putting the move in perspective.
Of course, Rove will continue to have pre-eminent influence, because politics is paramount in the Bush White House while policy—as John DiIulio and Paul O’Neill have attested—is a distant second. That’s why Rove has an office in the West Wing. (Other administrations have made their political people do their business outside.) Rove will still be involved in wooing the important outside constituencies, shaping the message, and applying the intimidation, cajoling, and gift baskets that are a part of enacting a president’s policy program. He will continue to have massive influence over everything that happens inside the White House, including policy issues, because while Bush is not on the ballot in 2006, the elections are a referendum on his performance.
That Rove still runs the political show should not necessarily hearten Republicans. Rove was the architect with Bush of the Social Security gambit that got the president’s second term off on its bus-plunge trajectory. Not only were the Bushies offering the American public a grand new program for private accounts, they were offering Republican politicians a new view of politics. Don’t worry about the time-tested political penalty that came with tinkering with Social Security, Rove argued. If you take on a bold challenge, voters will embrace you for your leadership. That may have sounded good in theory, but Rove royally botched the politics. Bush and his team misunderstood voters’ fears about the safety net and made little attempt to meet potential Democratic allies halfway. The president sold his vague principles through masterfully inauthentic, sham town halls that increased opposition the more he talked. The notion failed so miserably that it fell off the national agenda completely.
Now that Rove has been refocused, Josh Bolten will have a tighter hold on the operational process that moves programs forward, tracks legislation, and gets the day-to-day business done. But is that going to fix any of what’s really been ailing this administration and its Republican allies? It’s not going help with gas prices or the Iraq war, the two biggest problems in politics right now. A slick new Bolten policy operation isn’t going to cook up a new set of proposals that will wow the country, especially over the next six months.
Nothing the new team might conceive of would overcome the political fact that the president has lost his ability to sell the country anything. As Bush said in his recent press conference, he’s spending his political capital (if any, in fact, remains to him) in Iraq. GOP members of Congress are merely hoping to make it through the election alive. They’re not sturdy enough to sign on to any interesting initiatives coming out of the White House, even if Bolten can find them. If Karl Rove can resuscitate his party’s political fortunes in that environment, maybe he is some kind of magician after all.