Karl Rove’s resignation ends his tenure in a unique place in American history. No other presidential appointee has ever had such a strong influence on politics and policy, and none is likely to do so again anytime soon. Only Robert Kennedy exerted similar influence, and he had little to do with electoral politics during his brother’s presidency.
Mr. Rove brought to his work a wide and deep knowledge of U.S. history, political statistics, demography and public policy. He worked hard and, for most of three years, under an unjustified threat of indictment. He does not seem to have weighed in much on foreign or military policy, and there is no reason to believe George W. Bush sought his advice on whether to take military action in Iraq. But otherwise, he seems to have had his hand in everything from the details of the Medicare prescription drug bill to who should be the Republican nominee for the Senate in Minnesota. His effectiveness was grounded in the belief — accurate, it seems, to the end — that he had the full confidence of the president.
What is the verdict on his legacy? Mr. Rove is, as Mr. Bush put it, the “architect” of his political and policy strategy, and to many, that intertwined strategy seems to be in ruins. I take a longer view. For most of his career, Mr. Rove was a political consultant. In my own briefer career as a political consultant, I advised candidates running for executive office that they needed to come up with a small number of issue positions that would enable them to: (a) get their party’s nomination, (b) win the general election and (c) govern effectively.
It’s not easy. Going to the right (or left) can help in the primary but may hurt in the general. Policies widely appealing in the campaign may prove impossible to deliver on in government. Veering from your platform can be politically damaging, as Mr. Clinton discovered in 1994. But failing to adjust to changed circumstances can be a problem, as well.
I think there’s a strong argument that the Bush 2000 platform was well adapted to the nation’s needs and that most of it has been put into effect. The Education Accountability Act was a constructive and bipartisan federal push for reforms already proven in some states. The tax cuts, especially those of 2003, usefully stimulated an economy weakened by the bursting of the tech bubble and the September 11, 2001, attacks. The Medicare prescription drug bill headed the nation’s health-care systems toward markets and away from government control. Social Security reform was defeated by obdurate Democrats (and not helped by reluctant Republicans), but who can deny it addressed a long-term problem that sooner or later requires changes in policy?
Mr. Rove’s political strategy in 2000 defeated the in-power party at a time of apparent peace and prosperity (and helped Republicans face the strongest push for a Democratic Congress between 1994 and 2006), made unusual off-year gains for Republicans in 2002 and, through micro-targeting and unprecedented volunteer involvement, produced a solid victory in 2004.
Last year was different. Mr. Rove was unjustifiably confident about Republicans’ chances to hold Congress in 2006. But some things were out of his hands. The 2000 election might not have been as close as it was if Mr. Bush had revealed his 1976 charge for driving under the influence (DUI) at the campaign’s start rather than let Democrats leak it in the last week. And the 2006 result might have been different had Mr. Bush changed Iraq strategies in spring 2006 rather than winter 2007. These decisions, we can be sure, were Mr. Bush‘s, not Mr. Rove‘s.
Mr. Rove has failed to create the enduring Republican majority he hoped for. Mr. Bush has failed to attract young voters to his party, as Ronald Reagan and Mr. Clinton did, and no Republican candidate for president is campaigning as a Bush clone. But Mr. Rove shaped the political — and policy — present for a lot longer than any other political consultant ever. An impressive achievement, in my book.
Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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