The Blog

Should Bush Fire Rove?

Not if he cares about winning.

11:00 PM, Nov 6, 2005 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Even more important, the attempt to make Social Security reform central consigned the defense of the war in Iraq to a back burner during the first half of the year. This resulted in an Iraq debate that heavily favored the Democrats. In perhaps its most revealing finding, the Post poll finds a clear majority, 55 percent, now believes the administration deliberately misled the country in making the case for the invasion of Iraq. This has spilled over into declining ratings for Bush's overall handling of the war on terrorism (still his greatest strength) and to declining voter perceptions of presidential truthfulness and character.

On the issue of Iraq, it was not so much a Bush attempt to be bipartisan or to compromise that was the problem. It was a refusal to address the Democrats' unvarying drumbeat that "Bush lied to get us into the war." Never mind that it would have been lunacy for Bush to lie about the existence of weapons of mass destruction, knowing that once Iraq was occupied none would be found. If voters hear, repeatedly, a damaging accusation that remains largely unrebutted, they will have a tendency to assume that it is true.

Moreover, the decision to downplay Iraq following the successful January 2005 parliamentary elections was a cardinal error on another level. In wartime, voters' perception of how the war is going will tend to trump all other issues, including a strong economy. Wartime presidents pay a price for a failure to keep voters in the loop on the progress of the war. The president needs to explain setbacks as well as victories, and laying out the path to eventual success. There are signs President Bush and his foreign-policy team are on the road to correcting this problem.

During most of his 2005 job-approval decline, Bush's ratings continued to be high among Republicans and conservatives. This base support showed signs of weakening only when the president signed the pork-laden highway bill, overreacted to Hurricane Katrina by promising a major new anti-poverty program, and nominated Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. Interestingly, the polls showing new lows for Bush were taken before voters could assimilate the news of Bush's nomination of Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court, which could begin to reverse his conservative decline.

Even if a post-Alito uptick happens, though, Bush's 2005 decline will remain substantial. And polls suggest a strong Democratic lead in the congressional elections of November 2006. It is now evident that if the administration and Republicans don't fight back aggressively, Democrats will keep gaining, and the 2006 election will be rough for Republicans. This means Republicans--and the Bush administration--must accept the persistence of the polarization that has marked American politics since the election of 2000.

This is where Karl Rove comes back in. Between the 2000 election and the 2004 election, Rove became the master of polarization politics. And now, with this year's ill-fated experiment in trying to govern from the middle surely over, polarization along ideological and party lines is a fact of life. Ethics classes won't ameliorate Democratic hostility to Bush. Nor will firing Rove. In fact, throwing Rove overboard--dropping the political adviser who has been with Bush during his past comebacks and greatest triumphs--will increase the sense of a White House in disarray and retreat.

Keeping Rove; being unapologetic about the war; explaining why Saddam had to be removed, that there were terror ties between Saddam and al Qaeda, and why the war needs to be seen through to victory; fighting for Alito, and other well-qualified conservative judges at the appellate level; advancing pro-growth, pro-family tax reforms--this agenda won't enamor Bush to liberals. But it could lay the groundwork for a Bush comeback. The alternative is three long years of ducking, dodging--and defeat.

--William Kristol