For Hill GOP, Rove Has Mixed Legacy
Six years into President Bush’s tenure, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove has developed a mixed reputation among Republicans on Capitol Hill, many of whom view him as both the GOP’s greatest electoral tactician of the decade and, increasingly, as the mastermind behind some of the party’s major policy and political fiascos.
Since Bush was re-elected in 2004, Rove — who Members and aides said now visits the Hill less often than he did earlier in Bush’s presidency — has been a key driver behind the president’s call to Congress to engage in a massive overhaul of the nation’s Social Security and immigration programs, two issues that have badly fractured the party and weakened its public support.
At the same time, the longtime Bush loyalist — one of the last remaining senior aides from the administration’s original lineup — has found himself embedded in some of the GOP’s worst headlines in recent months, from the scandals involving the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity to the controversial firing late last year of at least eight U.S. attorneys.
“Most of us look at him as the architect of President Bush’s election and re-election as well as the Congressional elections in 2002,” said one Republican Senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He’s an animal — always looking at the future and the politics of how to shape the agenda.
“But there’ve been a few moves along the way that have left people scratching their heads and wondering how that fit with Rove’s [modus operandi],” this Senator said.
Beyond the troubles surrounding some of Bush’s policy initiatives, several Republicans also questioned a handful of Rove’s political calculations with Congress. For instance, several Senators cited Rove’s role in Bush’s failed nomination of then-White House counsel Harriet Miers for an opening on the Supreme Court and his involvement in the 2002 ouster of then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in favor of then-Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Asked whether Rove still holds the same stature among Republicans that he once enjoyed, Lott, now the Minority Whip, said in a brief interview last week: “Certainly not. Obviously, I’m not a fan.”
Still, Rove has a solid share of Congressional backers, with House and Senate Republicans universally characterizing him as one of the party’s savviest minds who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for keeping the GOP in charge of the White House for two terms.
Many Republican Members also believe that if not for Rove, they wouldn’t have had the same level of success in the 2002 and 2004 Congressional elections, which helped sustain and grow the party’s stronghold on the Hill.
“I personally don’t know anyone who is as smart or more skillful when it comes to politics,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a personal friend of Rove.
“There’s no one in the current aspect of politics who has a better read on the country than Karl Rove,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), the former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. “Not only does he know exactly what’s going on politically by regions of the country, he knows the people back in the states on a first name basis. Considering his orbit to the president, that’s pretty solid juice.”
Without a doubt, Rove continues to have Bush’s ear. And while the administration acknowledged that Rove may have less involvement with Capitol Hill these days, White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said “people continue to seek his opinion on important issues.”
“Obviously, Members of Congress rely upon Karl more during a political season, which is natural,” she said. “According to our Office of Legislative Affairs, who speak everyday with Members, Karl is respected for his opinions and his instincts. He remains someone whose opinion and advice carry a great deal of weight on the Hill and they frequently have people ask them what Karl thinks.”
Indeed, most Congressional Republicans were reluctant to call into question Rove’s electoral aptitude even in the wake of the 2006 elections that cost them their decade-plus majority. Cornyn, for one, said Rove, along with then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, “did as good a job as one could do especially under the circumstances.”
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) suggested that the party as a whole bears responsibility for its current political standing: “Right now we are short on golden boys in the Republican Party. I don’t think you can lay the blame at [Rove’s] feet. We’re all a little short.”
Several Congressional Republicans also defended Rove’s role in the domestic policy arena, saying that legislating was never his singular focus even as he previously held a multipurpose role as both political and policy adviser to Bush. Rove, they argued, cannot be faulted for having the vision and the courage to try to tackle the country’s most weighty subjects and round out Bush’s legacy beyond Iraq and the war on terror.
“He took on the big issues,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), adding that fault for Bush’s legislative setbacks such as Social Security have less to do with Rove and more to do with “the enormity of the issue.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he believes Rove’s legacy on the Hill ultimately will be a positive one, saying any Congressional criticism of the president’s longest-serving confidant emanates from the opposing party, not the GOP.
“Democrats hate him because he’s effective,” said Hatch, a conservative. “Karl Rove is kind of like [Sen.] Chuck Schumer [D-N.Y.] is to the Republicans. He’s tough and effective and he wins.”
“I don’t think Republicans blame Karl Rove for some of the difficulties this administration has had,” Hatch added. “Democrats blame him for everything and want to find some way of smearing him.”
Congressional Democrats have made a political sport out of vilifying Rove and on more than one occasion called for his removal from the administration. And while Bush consistently has been his staunchest supporter, there are some Republicans who privately wonder whether at times Rove has done them more harm then good — especially as they wade through a politically hairy immigration debate that Rove has helped fuel in his desire to attract more Hispanic voters to the GOP.
“The moral of the story is do what you do well and don’t overextend,” said the Republican Senator. “People only have so much bandwidth and you can’t do everything. When he got involved in policy, he got overextended.”
A senior GOP Senate aide said Rove’s biggest misstep with Congressional Republicans may have been that he failed to treat legislating differently than a campaign, taking a win-at-all-costs mentality that sometimes doesn’t translate on Capitol Hill. Plus, this staffer said, Rove often expected House and Senate Republicans to simply carry out all of the administration’s demands, regardless of the political price.
“Everything is war,” the senior aide said. “When it comes to policy, that game plan doesn’t exist.”
Republicans in both chambers acknowledge that they now see less of Rove, especially since April 2006 when his White House role shifted away from policy development to one focusing on strategic and tactical planning. The personnel move came shortly after Bush tapped a new chief of staff in Josh Bolten and amid some of the imbroglio involving the disclosure of Wilson’s identity and the indictment of former vice presidential Chief of Staff Scooter Libby.
But in Bush’s first term, Rove was regularly spotted on the Hill for individual meetings with Members, political briefings at the weekly House Republican Conference meetings and the occasional Member strategy sessions. Rove also used to hold weekly breakfast meetings with House Republican leaders, but those, too, have largely stopped in lieu of communications by telephone, Republican sources said.
Even at last week’s President’s Dinner fundraiser — one of the Republican campaign committees’ biggest events — Members noted that Rove was decidedly low-key. One lawmaker pointed out that a scheduled breakfast with the Bush adviser and party donors was canceled at the last minute without explanation, saying that in the past, “Karl Rove could pack an audience.”
“He’s lost potency, but I don’t think it’s very much due to him one way or another,” observed a senior House GOP Member. “It’s entirely tied to the president.”
Certainly, Rove’s visibility on Capitol Hill likely would have gradually diminished anyway, given that Bush is now a lame-duck president without a re-election campaign on the horizon. What’s more, Rove no longer shares party affiliation with the Congressional majority.
“It’s not as easy to turn on a dime now on what Karl Rove wants,” a high-level GOP lawmaker said.
“Everybody respects a guy who’s done what he’s done,” noted a conservative Republican Member. “He’s a soldier in the Bush cause, he’s a soldier in the conservative cause, but to some degree we’re looking for the next Karl Rove and he might be working for the Giuliani campaign or the Thompson campaign or McCain or somebody. There’s just a certain level of administration fatigue.”
Asked whether Rove still carries the same weight he once did among Hill Republicans, Isakson explained: “It’s the nature of the job. It makes it very difficult at the end of an administration to sustain the aura of the beginning. But with that said, there have been some remarkable things about Karl Rove. He is, has and will be the architect of President Bush’s success.”