Teetering at the Top to Win Bush’s Ear

Times Staff Writers

With President Bush’s popularity sagging, the White House is getting plenty of advice from Republicans who want to help pull him out of his slump.

There’s only one problem: They often disagree with each other.

The challenge of fixing the Bush presidency has heightened long-standing tensions among Bush aides and supporters, between moderate conservatives and hard-liners.

The moderates worry that the president has fallen under the spell of Vice President Dick Cheney and political advisor Karl Rove, and has moved so far to the right that he has alienated many voters. The hard-liners think Bush has erred by not being conservative enough; some of them even accuse White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. of plotting to water down the president’s program.

The debate, behind closed doors, is a classic struggle for the president’s ear. Outside the White House, members of each camp -- in Congress, think tanks and interest groups -- gossip over whether any of Bush’s top aides will lose their jobs. Inside the White House, no one will talk openly about possible staff changes, but aides acknowledge that a debate over strategy is underway.


“Certainly there’s a recognition that at 38% or 39% job approval [for Bush] in polls, no one is satisfied with the status quo,” one presidential aide said. “We need to be communicating more effectively with the American people.”

“All people have competing ideas,” the aide added, speaking anonymously because comments were unauthorized. “Do you go with Strategy A or Strategy B? There’s always been that dynamic at work at the White House.” But “the narrative ... that there are fault lines, that there’s depression, that people are distracted -- it’s just not realistic. It’s just not the reality at the place where I work every day.”

Other aides and outside advisors agreed that the differences among Bush’s staff were mostly matters of style, nuance and tactical advice -- not yawning ideological conflicts.

“Overblown, overblown, overblown,” thundered longtime Bush strategist Mark McKinnon about reports of West Wing intrigue such as an effort to oust Rove.

“We’re all compassionate conservatives,” another aide said, invoking Bush’s inclusive campaign slogan from 2000.

The divisions may be worse than ideological; they may be partly personal.

The key questions, Bush advisors said, boil down to one: To recover political momentum, does Bush need to replace some of his top aides, including Rove, who is under investigation by a special prosecutor for talking with reporters about the identity of a CIA officer?

There is no sign that the president plans significant changes in his inner circle. Rove, who on Thursday gave his first public speech in several weeks, appears to be back in full power “with a spring in his step,” one aide said. Like nearly everyone who serves at the pleasure of the president, this person spoke on condition of anonymity because of Bush’s abhorrence of leaks.

The consensus inside the White House, aides said, is that Rove, deputy chief of staff to Bush, will leave if he is indicted but stay if he is not. Bush still values the political advice of the man he publicly lauded as “the architect” of his 2004 reelection. As long as Rove is not under criminal charges, one senior official said, “Karl’s not a liability to the president.”

Reports persist that Card, for his part, is tired after five years in a notoriously tough job, so there is plenty of private jockeying over who might succeed him as chief of staff. (Names most often mentioned: White House Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten, former Commerce Secretary Don Evans and -- a dark horse -- U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.) Treasury Secretary John W. Snow may also leave, several officials said.

Meanwhile, aides say they are hard at work on proposals for Bush’s State of the Union address, which -- although it is a long two months away -- is the official answer to questions about when and how the president will begin rebuilding his popularity.

Outside the White House, several senior Republicans have said publicly that the president’s staff needs a shake-up, and they have said privately that some Bush aides agree. None of the senior Republicans are in Bush’s inner circle, but they include a growing number of Republicans in Congress, a caucus that is increasingly nervous as the 2006 congressional election nears.

“I do think they need to look at bringing in some more people -- you know, old graybeards that have been around this town for a while -- to help them out a little bit at the White House,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former Senate GOP leader, said on MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews.”

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) expressed a similar view in a separate interview: “It is important that they bring in someone [who can] show a new dynamism, a new drive, a new focus.”

Some GOP moderates, including former officials of this administration and previous Republican administrations, say Rove’s presence is a problem -- but, mindful of his power, they refuse to say it publicly.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether Rove broke the law by disclosing the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame as part of an effort to discredit her husband, a critic of Bush’s Iraq policies. Rove has acknowledged discussing Plame with reporters, but he has maintained through his lawyer that he did not know her covert status at the time and so did nothing wrong. People familiar with the case say the prosecutor may take weeks or months more to decide whether to charge Rove.

“The problem with Karl is: What did he say to the president?” said an official from an earlier Republican administration about Rove’s apparent role in the CIA leak. “If he misled the president, it means you can’t trust his word. If he told the truth to the president, that may be worse,” the former official said, because it would imply that Bush knew about the source of the leak and failed to take action. “Bush has a problem either way.”

Said another former official: “He’s got to get out of there.... We’ve got to stop the bleeding.”

Speaking privately, some moderates said they would like to see Bush ask Karen P. Hughes, the president’s top image-maker in his first term, to return to the White House as a counterweight to Rove. Hughes is now an undersecretary of State in charge of improving the image of the United States around the world.

But the hard-liners disagree. They say Rove, and his strategy of strengthening the conservative GOP “base” rather than pursuing centrist or bipartisan strategies, is not the problem.

“The road ahead for the White House is a conservative road, if it’s going to be a successful one,” said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. “It’s still a pretty polarized electorate. You’re not going to get huge Democratic support for things you do. But you can win a good percentage of the time and rally your own voters back to you.”

Said Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist who is the hard-liners’ unofficial ringmaster: “Karl Rove is an asset. Karl is smart. Karl has the president’s interests at heart.” He added: “Nobody is indispensable, but Karl Rove is terribly important.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, some conservatives said they bore a grudge against Card for his role in arranging Bush’s abortive Supreme Court nomination of White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers.

Card “not only showed bad judgment,” one hard-liner said. “He wasn’t bright enough to figure out that he didn’t know” how conservatives would react to the nomination.

A tug-and-pull between Card and Hughes on one side, and Rove and Cheney on another, has existed since Bush came to the White House in 2001.

In an unguarded moment, Card explained it to Esquire magazine writer Ron Suskind in 2002, after Hughes left the White House. “The key balance around here has been between Karen and Karl Rove,” Card said then.

With Hughes gone, Card said, he needed to find other aides, “people trusted by the president that I can elevate for various needs to balance against Karl.... It won’t be easy. Karl is a formidable adversary.”

(Card and White House spokesmen later said Suskind’s article was inaccurate, but they did not dispute the quotes.)

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum said the distinctions between Hughes and Rove were subtle, and not ideological. “There is a difference in methods, definitely, between Hughes and Rove,” he said. “That sometimes leads to different results. It sometimes leads to different approaches to the same result.... [But] I don’t think either of them is an ideological person.”

Card, Hughes and Rove all declined to be interviewed for this article.

As for Cheney, GOP moderates have given up hope of curbing the vice president’s hard-line policies, but they also consider it far-fetched to think he would ever leave office before his term was up.

An article last week in the New York Daily News caused a flurry of excitement in Washington by quoting unnamed Republicans as saying they had detected a “subtle but unmistakable erosion in the bond” between Bush and Cheney, which they said was largely because Cheney’s optimistic predictions about the ease of pacifying Iraq turned out to be wrong.

But the article drew swift denials from White House aides. “The VP still defers to the president and offers his advice and counsel,” said one. “I don’t see that he’s being relegated to a different position, like going to funerals.”

“I’ve seen no sign” of a change in Cheney’s status, Bush advisor McKinnon said.

If Cheney and Rove and perhaps even Card all stay at the White House, what do Bush aides propose as a strategy for the president’s recovery from his current political slump?

“The first thing he doesn’t do is overreact,” said McKinnon, who has worked closely for Bush on political campaigns since 1998. “It would be a mistake to overreact, and he doesn’t overreact. A lot of this is due to external events. Ultimately, he will be judged on Iraq, the economy and New Orleans.”

White House aides said they were focusing on Bush’s late-January State of the Union address as the formal kickoff of his presidency’s next phase.

One senior official said: “The State of the Union provides for a natural time to refocus the energies of the administration.... It’s a natural page-turner” -- a term Bush aides use for anything that can make the public “turn the page,” to forget the bad news of the moment and focus on Bush’s plans for the future.

As time passes, officials and former officials said, Bush, who extols loyalty, appears increasingly unlikely to ask any of his senior aides to leave.

“I hear a bunch of outsiders that recommend it to them, but I have not heard anything out of the White House that would indicate it,” said GOP strategist Charles Black. “The most important senior staff people, I believe, are there for the duration.”

“People are trying to calculate this based on previous White House experiences, [and] they always come up with the wrong answer,” one former Bush aide said. “How many times has [Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s] epitaph been written?”


Times staff writers Janet Hook, Tom Hamburger and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.