Spinner Emeritus

Karl Rove’s next job.

John Dickerson assesses the Web video efforts of GOP presidential candidates in this Slate V video.

George Bush and Karl Rove. Click image to expand.
George Bush and Karl Rove

Karl Rove has always loved his role as White House historian. Almost as soon as he moved into his West Wing office, he was giving friends late-night tours of the building, offering tidbits about the paintings, rooms, and furniture. His office walls are clotted with yellowed documents and pictures related to Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. More than once, he has challenged academic historians who wrote unfavorably about the Bush presidency. Now that Rove is leaving the White House, shaping the judgment of history will no doubt become his full-time job.

Rove could slip into oblivion, teach at the University of Texas at Austin, and write books about obscure 19th-century political figures, but I doubt it. He was involved in every detail of the Bush administration from the placement of the presidential seal on the lectern to the wording of the State of the Union. His drive, his willingness to use base-driven politics, made Bush president and got him re-elected. It also helped make Bush ineffective and the least popular president in modern times. That’s the judgment Rove now faces. A man so obsessed by history isn’t likely to stand by while it judges him badly.

While other Bush officials are openly exposing the secrets and dysfunction of their time at the White House, Rove was as upbeat as ever in his exit interview with the Wall Street Journal. Bush’s approval rating will improve, he said; the situation in Iraq will turn around; and another Republican will make it into the White House in 2008. Rove will also apparently regrow his hair and play for the Cowboys.

This may be delusional—Rove’s sunny predictions in the past, particularly about the 2006 election, were spectacularly wrong. But his parting comments indicate that while he’s leaving, he’s not letting up on the spin. Rove has  a lot to explain: why his dream of  a GOP realignment never happened (or hasn’t happened yet), why he isn’t responsible for making the already cynical game of politics more cynical, why the top priorities of Social Security and immigration reform failed so spectacularly, and why he did nothing wrong in outing an undercover CIA agent to journalists.

As George Bush headed to Washington in 2001, Rove promised a politics that would grow the GOP into a long-term majority party. Bush would be a new kind of Republican who would challenge the Democrats on their turf, by offering Compassionate Conservative™ solutions on issues such as education where voters didn’t traditionally trust the GOP. By championing a pro-immigration policy, Bush would lock Hispanic voters into the Republican column for a generation. Little by little the president would “hive off” components from the Democratic coalition.

As Bush and Rove plotted strategy for Bush’s re-election at the president’s Crawford, Texas, ranch in January 2003, the two of them talked about rejuvenating the party with the influx of dynamic young “Bush Republicans.” (In a sign of the corrosive cynicism of the Bush/Rove tenure, that four-hour planning meeting took place just moments after Bush had told the press he was not planning or thinking about the 2004 election.) But the re-election effort took a rather different turn.

Rove ran his candidate on the politics of conflict and division. The idea that Bush would be a uniter and not a divider disappeared. The promise of Texas politics, where Bush had sat down with Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and got things done, never materialized. The strategy that emerged instead was one in which Rove and the GOP painted Democrats as dangerous to American security. Negotiations with adversaries in Washington followed the model Bush laid out for the rest of the world: You’re either with us or against us.

While everyone was watching the public cage match, Rove and the White House political office were using the powers of the executive branch to gain political advantage in every aspect of the government from the Justice Department to the GSA.

The result, along with an unpopular war, is that the Republican Party is now in as deep a funk as it has been since Watergate. Rove wanted to reshape the national political landscape and he did: It now looks like something from a Mad Max film. “Many of us thought we would have helped solve the problem of polarization,” Matthew Dowd, who worked closely with Rove for both presidential campaigns, wrote in Texas Monthly, but “we’re in an even more polarized place.” Bush loyalists looking to pinpoint Rove’s role in the difference between the Texas and Washington years note that in Texas, Rove was merely a consultant to Gov. Bush. In Washington, he was physically in the White House, with his hands directly on the levers of policy-making.

Though Rove has not spent much time on television spinning for the administration, he is good at offering live audiences seemingly plausible explanations for the administration’s, er, temporary troubles. At a recent Aspen Institute forum, he had a largely liberal audience applauding after he charmed the crowd with a series of self-deprecating jokes. Standing in line to get coffee, on his way to the venue in the heart of liberal territory, he said he heard the owner tell a patron that Karl Rove was there. “I’d like to slug that son of a bitch,” said the patron. “Well he’s right behind you,” said the owner. To the audience laughter Rove responded: “I knew I was getting close to Aspen.” At the same venue, Rove quietly began the task of rewriting the story of his involvement in the Valerie Plame outing by editing the nature of his conversation with my former colleague Matt Cooper.

Even as he departed, Rove was predicting Democratic disaster around the corner.

In his Wall Street Journal interview, he promises that the debate over the FISA court will split the party and damage it with the American people. (He said that very same issue would help Republicans keep the majority in Congress in the 2006 elections.) But despite his overreaching miscalculations, conservatives still crave tactical instruction from a man who shares their core beliefs, their thirst for confrontation, and whom they still consider a genius.

Rove can be expected to paint a heroic self-portrait in the memoir he is now said to be writing. It seems unlikely he’ll fare as well in the accounts of his colleagues. Though Rove sometimes drew up reading lists for lower-level staffers or gave them advice on places to go on vacation in Texas, he will be better remembered for intermittently exploding into purple-faced rages. To talk off-the-record to senior White House aides over the years about their constant, relentless battles with Rove was like listening in on marriage counseling. Many people inside and outside the White House feared Rove, a number of them truly admired him (professionally and personally), but of very few can it be said that they ever trusted him.

In retirement, Rove will have a willing audience among his party’s faithful. Though the president has lost his shine among some die-hard conservatives, Rove largely hasn’t—despite being the architect of the push for comprehensive immigration reform. Even after the 2006 losses, conservatives were saying it wasn’t Rove’s fault, but the fault of a corrupt, confused GOP congressional leadership. Conservatives also need Rove to survive as a guru. While Republicans are momentarily depressed, it doesn’t come from a fundamental conundrum about their party’s core beliefs. Many just think that circumstances, a poorly managed war, and a distracted president harmed the execution of GOP policy.