A Banner Day at the White House

Karl Rove is in the clear.

Karl Rove

Boy, that Josh Bolten is good. Since taking over as White House chief of staff, he has successfully installed a new spokesman, landed a Wall Street wizard to run the Treasury Department, killed the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, got the Iraqis to form a government, and brought about the exoneration of Karl Rove. Political observers search for a turning point. When the narrative is written, Bolten’s promotion will seem like the moment everything changed for the White House.

Bolten, of course, had nothing to do with the good result for Rove, or the developments in Iraq, but he did play a role in creating an atmosphere that allows White House aides to perhaps enjoy today’s news. After months of relentless bad headlines, disappointments, and public failures, Bush officials have been reluctant to embrace glimmers of good news, knowing they would be quickly overshadowed. There is a sense now in the White House, though, that they may be back on their game or at least back off their heels. “People are just more confident,” says one top White House aide.

This could be wishful thinking. With the president’s approval ratings still low, Republicans in a funk, and Democrats energized, there’s an incentive for West Wing aides and partisans to overplay good news. But their optimism springs more from the other event that took place on Rove’s good day, which poses more troubling problems for Democrats in November than the absolution of the president’s chief political adviser. George Bush flew to Baghdad Tuesday to highlight the coming together of the Iraqi government. The trip came after meetings at Camp David between Bush and his military advisers, meetings that are almost certainly the prelude to a pre-November announcement that troops in Iraq will start coming home.

Meanwhile, in a rare sign of collaboration between the White House and its congressional allies, House Republicans are pushing a war resolution that would reject a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and daring Democrats to vote against it. “There are clear differences between Republicans and Democrats on how best to confront the global war on terror,” Majority Leader John Boehner said last night. “Will we fight or will we retreat?” In a speech in Manchester, N.H., last night, Rove sounded the same theme, accusing Democrats who are calling for such a withdrawal, like Sen. John Kerry and Rep. John Murtha, of advocating “cutting and running.”

Answering this charge is the central challenge for Democrats today. The White House is pushing images of a president who’s in control, who has a plan that suggests progress has been made, and who hints the troops are coming home. This is what Americans want to believe as the death toll for U.S. soldiers appraoches the 2,500 milestone, and the White House and Republicans are running well down the field with it. That’s why it was curious that Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman asked Democrats to apologize for “rushing to judgment” on Rove. Why invite attention beyond the “Rove Cleared” headlines? Do Bush allies really want to revive stories of how the administration used intelligence to fight clumsy wars in the press? Gloating also reminds us how poorly those secrets were used to fight the real wars.

Some judgments about Rove still stand. He said he wasn’t involved in the Plame business. He was. Until he and his lawyer or the president clear that up, if they can, a victory lap seems loony. Even in its most favorable light, disseminating information about a CIA operative was below the White House standard George Bush set when he ran for office. That may seem like a tedious point to some, but as Rove has relentlessly said, elections are about each party’s governing philosophy. Bush ran in 2000 promising a governing philosophy that would be beyond ethical reproach.

Those are nettlesome points, unlikely to interfere with the brightened mood of Republicans. Rove’s clean bill of health means he can apply his considerable skill to November’s competitive congressional races. And it removes the prospect of an indictment that threatened to quash GOP enthusiasm before the November election. Rove was already inspiring standing ovations from activists before he was cleared. Think how happy they’ll be now.

Rove is not entirely free of his entanglement in the Plame affair. He will probably have to testify at Scooter Libby’s trial, set to begin in early January 2007, which will unfurl a number of uncomfortable disclosures for Rove and the White House about their activities before and after the Iraq war. By then, though, the 2006 election will be over.