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Paul Hayden

So Long, Karl, We Hardly Knew Ye

August 20, 2007

Chief Bush advisor Karl Rove recently announced he will be stepping down at the end of August. Although he was arguably the architect of two presidential election victories, history may be less than kind when the big picture of Rove's impact on the Republican party is analyzed. The bottom line could be that those two victories were bought at a very high price for the party's and conservatism's future.

Like Dick Morris was to Bill Clinton, Rove was the supposedly brilliant mastermind behind the scenes. Both men urged their bosses to make bold moves that, ironically enough, went against the grain of their political bases-Morris advising Clinton to back welfare reform, and Rove advising Bush to back the controversial illegal immigration "reform" bill that recently went down in flames.

Unlike Morris, however, Rove was a mysterious and shadowy figure to the public. When Morris was caught in sexual indiscretions, it showed a human side and certainly made him fit right into the Clinton team. Rove's controversies, such as they were, tended to be much more circumspect, which to his enemies only lent a further air of suspicion and mistrust to whatever he was doing backstage to pull the president's strings.

Also unlike Morris, Rove's "triangulation" strategy, if indeed that was his intent, was far less successful. Whether it came to Social Security reform or illegal immigration reform, most of Bush's proposals have not played well to the public. Of course, the backdrop of the Iraq war, a decision which Rove influenced, didn't help matters any. But winning issues may have won out, Iraq or no Iraq. The way Social Security reform and illegal immigration reform were presented almost guaranteed their defeat-the former because the preparatory work needed to gain public support was woefully inadequate, and the latter because it was simply not what the public wanted, and Rove and the president badly miscalculated that.

Although Rove did not invent "compassionate conservatism," he certainly didn't seem to shy away from it, and we've seen first hand what disastrous consequences that moniker has wrought. In essence, Bush has backhandedly taught us how important it is to be proud of our conservative beliefs, not to carry them with an almost apologetic air as he has so often done. And if there's any truth to the critics' claim that Rove had a Svengali-like effect on Bush, then we must attribute much of the president's public persona to the influence of his chief advisor.

In fact, recalling the two Bush victories, it could be argued that the candidate won almost in spite of himself. The 2000 election might have been a rout if Bush had taken the gloves off and tied Gore to Clinton's disgraced presidency at every turn. Instead, he took the high road and, for his efforts, was accused by his enemies of stealing the election. In 2004, Bush had the luxury of running against a weak Northeastern liberal who didn't resonate with the American people, yet the election was still relatively close-close enough that once again, Bush's enemies accused him of fixing the results (in Ohio in particular) to put himself over the top. Rush Limbaugh had stated shortly before the election that in the America he once knew, Bush should be leading by 30 points-that's how terrible a candidate Kerry was. The fact that he won by only three points says as much or more about Bush's weak campaign as it does the fickleness of the voting public. And that in turn brings into question the job that Rove did in packaging a four-year incumbent as a candidate.

A valued political advisor is worth his or her weight in platinum largely because of their damage control skills when the boss is in a jam. In this area in particular, Rove seemed, to far too great an extent, to let the media and prominent Democrats flavor the perception of how President Bush handled crises. Hurricane Katrina is a case in point. By the time the incompetent mayor of New Orleans and his equally incompetent accomplice in the governor's mansion were through, people were convinced that the blame for all of the post-hurricane problems rested at Bush's doorstep. Where was Rove when all of this was happening? Certainly not controlling the message from the White House, including sound bites such as "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" to an appointee who was soon to lose that job.

As Rove rides off into the sunset, he leaves a mixed and uncertain legacy of one who, by his actions or appearances, has seemingly lost faith in his own as well as his boss's abilities as time went on. Although his detractors will claim that he's leaving for self-preservation reasons, it may just be an old-fashioned case of burnout after being under the gun for six and a half tumultuous years. We can only wonder how his exit may have been different if he'd fought more battles out in the open instead of behind closed doors.

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