Give Karl Rove his due. The political strategist known as “Bush’s brain” mobilized enough little gray cells to put his client in the White House twice. Rove combined a savant’s command of political minutiae with a grand strategy best described as “divide and conquer.”
But the politics of polarization that once served President Bush so well eventually undermined his quest for a legacy of achievement in office, while deflating Rove’s own dream of a Republican ascendancy at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. On Monday, Rove quit while he was behind.
It isn’t just that Democrats regained control of Congress last year after Rove warned that “Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview, and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview.” The hyper-partisanship Rove brought to his dual roles in the White House -- political operator and policy maven -- contributed to the failure of a series of administration initiatives, from restructuring Social Security to comprehensive immigration reform.
Bush isn’t the first president to rely on the wiles of political operatives. His father benefited from the labors of Lee Atwater, and Bill Clinton relied on the polling acumen of Dick Morris. A president isn’t just the commander in chief; he’s the politician in chief.
But too partisan a tone can be bad politics as well as bad policy. Bush, who had campaigned by promising to be a “uniter, not a divider,” has presided over an administration in which every issue seems to be a wedge issue, though none more so than the war on terrorism. It’s also an administration that has been on perpetual campaign footing.
Take the scandal that will keep Rove and his lawyers tethered to the capital even after he leaves the White House: the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, referred to “Mr. Rove’s apparent attempts to manipulate elections and push out prosecutors, citing bogus claims of voter fraud.” That’s an accusation Rove must address, given what is already known about the seepage of partisan politics into the administration of justice.
In saying good riddance to Karl Rove, his critics need to remember that he had only the influence that Bush allowed him. Rove may have accused the Democrats of having a pre-9/11 worldview, but it was Bush who said: “The party of FDR, the party of Harry Truman, has become the party of cut and run.” Rove is leaving. Will Rove-ism remain?