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Roving Ambition: Why Dems Target Karl


July 20, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.


Not too long ago President Bush asked his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, how he was holding up under a burst of media and Democratic criticism.

"That depends on you, sir," said Mr. Rove, who has long been part of the Bush inner circle.

"They are going to need a very sharp crowbar to get between us," replied Mr. Bush, who then added, as he often does about the criticism, "Better you than me!"

Mr. Rove laughs when he tells that story, which is self-serving but which also sounds true because it captures the Bush-Rove symbiosis. Mr. Bush knows no one is more vital to the success of his presidency than his fellow transplanted Texan, which is precisely why Democrats are painting a bull's-eye on Mr. Rove's back.

Rep. Henry Waxman, the California spearthrower, called this week for a Justice Department probe of Mr. Rove over conflict of interest. That demand won't go anywhere, because Mr. Waxman is in the House minority and so can't hold hearings, and because the independent-counsel law has expired, thanks to Monica Lewinsky. And besides, the charges are slight even by Beltway standards.

But Mr. Rove had better get used to it. Mr. Waxman -- a Democratic Dan Burton with 20 more IQ points -- is building a record for the next time the White House adviser gets caught in media/political fire. He knows that if Democrats can chase Mr. Rove out of the White House, they'll be halfway to chasing Mr. Bush out of Washington in 2004.

It would be the equivalent of what happened to the first President Bush when he lost his chief strategist, Lee Atwater, to cancer early in his first term. Bush 41 lost track of the coalition that had elected him, and never regained his political bearings. Bush 43 saw that up close, which is another reason he's not likely to cut Mr. Rove loose easily.

Mr. Rove's critics have tried to portray him as another Dick Morris, a political Svengali with veto power over every Bush decision. But that both overstates and underappreciates Mr. Rove's influence. It overstates it because this Bush White House is organized very differently from his father's. There are several bases of power, not just one all-powerful switching station like his father had with John Sununu.

Mr. Rove is only one of them. There's also Andy Card, the chief of staff traffic cop with Mr. Bush's ear. Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff also carry clout, especially on economics and foreign policy. Karen Hughes, Mr. Bush's other Texas confidant, is his Michael Deaver (the Reagan-era message meister) and enforcer of the "change the tone" theme.

Throw in National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on foreign affairs, and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, and some Republicans complain that they have to dance with too many White House Big Feet to get anything done. (That's another column.)

But the Rove-as-Morris theme also underappreciates his clout because he's usually more than just a tactical political schemer. Sometimes Mr. Rove can fall into that trap, as he did when he met with New York Gov. George Pataki before advising Mr. Bush to stop the Navy firing range at Vieques, Puerto Rico. (Mr. Pataki is angling for the neutrality of Puerto-Rican union officials in his 2002 re-election campaign). That decision hurt Mr. Bush in prestige more than it helped him with Hispanics because it looked like the transparent pandering that it was.

Mr. Rove's real value is as the keeper of the Bush political road map, the strategy for governing with the goal of building a new majority coalition. One large part of this is minding the GOP base that elected the president. So Mr. Rove was a promoter of the tax-cut-first strategy, which has helped to earn early conservative loyalty.

The oddity is why anyone would find this odd. What is Mr. Bush supposed to do, ignore his supporters? Mr. Rove had better be busy negotiating a stem-cell compromise unless no one cares whether any Bush decision is sustainable in Congress.

The other long-range Rove goal is building GOP support among new swing constituencies. First among these are Hispanics, who aren't yet locked into Democratic habits. Sometimes this desire can descend into pandering, a la Vieques. But sometimes it can produce a sensible policy breakthrough.

Take this week's media trial-balloon of amnesty for Mexican immigrants. The White House privately insists it played no role in the news leak, which supposedly came out of Mexican President Vicente Fox's entourage on his visit to the U.S. And the White House quickly backed away from any pledge of blanket amnesty.

But I sense Mr. Rove wasn't unhappy at the news. The leak created a flurry of interest among Latinos and unusual new coalitions in Congress. Sam Brownback, the Kansas conservative, appeared at a press conference with Tom Daschle, the labor liberal, to tout immigration reform.

A complete amnesty may go too far. But Mr. Rove is among those working toward some kind of guest-worker program for Mexicans that could reduce illegal immigration, satisfy business and labor, and please the Mexican government -- and, by the way, help Mr. Bush win more Hispanic votes.

Which is the real reason Mr. Rove will remain a target of Henry Waxman.

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