The Rove Presidency

Karl Rove had the plan, the power, and the historic chance to remake American politics. What went wrong?

Another important misjudgment by Bush, prodded by  Rove, was giving Rove too much power within the  administration. This was partly a function of Rove’s desire to control policy as well as politics. His prize for winning the reelection campaign was a formal role and the title of deputy chief of staff for policy. But his power also grew because the senior policy staff in the White House was inept.

In an early scene in Ron Suskind’s book The Price of Loyalty, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, not yet alive to the futility of his endeavor, warns Dick Cheney that the White House policy process is so ineffectual that it is tantamount to “kids rolling around on the lawn.” Had O’Neill lasted longer than he did (he resigned in 2002), he might have lowered his assessment. Before she left the White House in humiliation after conservatives blocked her nomination to the Supreme Court, White House Counsel Harriet Miers had also served as deputy chief of staff for policy. The president’s Domestic Policy Council was run by Claude Allen, until he, too, resigned, after he was caught shoplifting at Target.

The weakness of the White House policy staff demanded Rove’s constant involvement. For all his shortcomings, he had clear ideas about where the administration should go, and the ability to maneuver. “Where the bureaucracy was failing and broken, Karl got stuff done,” says a White House colleague. “Harriet was no more capable of producing policy out of the policy office she directed than you or I are capable of jumping off the roof of a building and flying to Minneapolis.”

As a result, Rove not only ran the reelection campaign, he plotted much of Bush’s second-term agenda, using the opportunity to push long-standing pet issues—health- savings accounts, Social Security privatization—that promised to weaken support for Democrats, by dismantling Medicare and Social Security. But this also meant committing the president to sweeping domestic changes that had no public favor and had not been a focus of the 2004 campaign, which had centered almost exclusively on the war.

Bush’s reelection and Rove’s assumption of a formal policy role had a bigger effect than most of Washington realized at the time. It is commonly assumed (as I assumed) that Rove exercised a major influence on White House policy before he had the title, all the time that he had it, and even after it was taken away from him in the staff shake-up last year that saw Josh Bolten succeed Andrew Card as chief of staff.

Insiders don’t disagree, but say that Rove’s becoming deputy chief of staff for policy was still an important development. For the purposes of comparison, a former Bush official cited the productiveness of the first two years of Bush’s presidency, the period that generated not just No Child Left Behind but three tax cuts and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. At the time, Bolten was deputy chief of staff for policy, and relations with Congress had not yet soured. “Josh was not an equal of Karl’s with regard to access to the president or stature,” says the official. “But he was a strong enough intellect and a strong enough presence that he was able to create a deliberative process that led to a better outcome.” When Bolten left to run the Office of Management and Budget, in 2003, the balance shifted in Rove’s favor, and then shifted further after the reelection. “Formalizing [Rove’s policy role] was the final choke-off of any internal debate or deliberative process,” says the official. “There was no offset to Karl.”

Rove’s greatest shortcoming was not in conceptualizing policies but in failing to understand the process of getting them implemented, a weakness he never seems to have recognized in himself. It’s startling that someone who gave so much thought to redirecting the powers of government evinced so little interest in understanding how it operates. Perhaps because he had never worked in government—or maybe because his standing rested upon his relationship with a single superior—he was often ineffective at bringing into being anything that required more than a presidential signature.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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