The Magazine

Karl Rove Laughs Last

Why his non-indictment is such good news for the White House.

Jun 26, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 39 • By FRED BARNES
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THE LEFTIES AND THE MEDIA are right about Karl Rove. That's why they're in a dither now that Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has cleared Rove of any criminal wrongdoing in the overblown leak case involving CIA functionary Valerie Plame. The left and the mainstream press know three things about Rove: (1) He's the most influential White House aide ever; (2) his influence is almost always in a conservative direction; and (3) his downfall is (or was) key to bringing down the presidency of George W. Bush.

Many conservatives have never warmed to Rove, perhaps recalling his reputation as a Texas political consultant who could teach it round or teach it flat. They appreciate him merely in the sense that the enemy of their enemy is their friend. And Rove, as the indispensable aide to Bush, is certainly the enemy of the left and the media.

Keep in mind the media's unspoken goal since Vietnam and Watergate. It is, as Michael Barone wrote in the Wall Street Journal, to "undermine" faith in America's leaders, especially the president, and even more so a conservative president. This explains the two questions about Rove at Bush's press conference last week.

Fitzgerald's decision not to seek an indictment of Rove was insufficient for the press. "Even if Karl Rove did nothing illegal," Bush was asked, "I wonder whether you can say now whether you approve of his conduct in the CIA leak episode and do you believe he owes [former press secretary] Scott McClellan or anyone else an apology for misleading them?" Bush ducked the question.

Another reporter followed up, asking if Bush had "learned anything" about his administration from the way Rove and others dealt with the CIA matter. "And do you have any work to do to rebuild credibility that might have been lost?" Bush ducked this question, too. Of course, all his aides did was knock down the now discredited claims about the intervention in Iraq made by former diplomat Joseph Wilson, whose wife worked for the CIA. It was public disclosure of her name that prompted Fitzgerald's investigation.

What if Rove had been indicted and forced to resign? The White House wouldn't have come unhinged. But its effectiveness in policy and politics would have been significantly diminished. Besides shaping the election strategy for the entire Republican party, Rove is the most important player at the White House, after the president, on both policy and politics. My rule of thumb is that whenever you think you've found an issue or project or concern at the White House (outside foreign policy) where Rove isn't involved--you're wrong. He's involved in some way or other, and, from a conservative standpoint, usually for the better.

Rove's all-inclusive reach makes him sui generis. There's never been another like him on a president's staff. "He's bigger than [Lee] Atwater on the political side and bigger than [Richard] Darman on the policy side," says Jeffrey Bell, a member of the American Conservative Union's board of directors. Darman worked in the Reagan and elder Bush's administrations, and Atwater was the elder Bush's political adviser. But no one said of either Darman or Atwater what a Bush aide says of Rove: "On the big policies, Karl is the sun and everyone else is the moon."

It's easy to demonstrate Rove's critical importance to Bush and, I think, to conservatives as well. Start with Bush's reelection campaign in 2004, and then consider two issues, Social Security reform and immigration.

At his press conference, Bush said that at one point in the 2004 election he was "probably down double digits" in the polls. "And they said, how can you possibly stand here and tell us you're going to get reelected?" In truth, it was never that bad for Bush. Absent Rove's campaign strategy, however, it might have been.

The Rove plan has been mischaracterized as a "base strategy," an appeal solely to conservatives and Republicans. Not so. Bush did concentrate on expanding his support among conservatives and Republicans. But the strategy was "far deeper and wider," says Bush adviser Peter Wehner. It was also tailored to increase his vote among Catholics, Jews, Hispanics, and blacks. And it succeeded.

On Social Security reform, I suspect the president would not have made it his top domestic priority in his second term without Rove's urging. In fact, he might not have broached the subject at all, despite having raised it in his 2000 campaign. But Rove was convinced the public was ready to accept sweeping reforms of Social Security. So Bush stepped front and center.

The conventional wisdom is that Bush's failed pitch for Social Security reform in 2005 was a political and substantive disaster. It surely didn't help Bush's job approval rating. The president moved the ball, though, making partial privatization far more publicly acceptable, but probably leaving the job of achieving it to a successor. Conservatives should be thrilled with Bush on Social Security since he boldly went where Reagan feared to tread.

On immigration, Rove has reinforced Bush's instincts, which are to seek the maximum--stiffer border enforcement, a temporary worker program, and earned citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the United States. This irritates conservatives who favor enforcement only, but matches the view of Reagan, the conservative standard-bearer.

Immigration affects the Hispanic vote, a long-term obsession of Rove and Bush. In 2004, Bush lifted the Republican share of that vote to 44 percent, a record for a Republican presidential candidate. Left to their own devices, conservatives and congressional Republicans would enact an enforcement-only bill that might drive away Hispanics and deny Republicans a lasting majority in America. Rove and Bush are eager to prevent that by saving conservatives from themselves.

During his three-year ordeal as a Fitzgerald target, Rove showed remarkable equanimity. A few weeks ago he apologized to counselor Michael Gerson for having been "distracted" by the investigation. Gerson responded that he hadn't noticed. Indeed, he really hadn't.

For all Rove's clout, the White House has not been unswervingly supportive of him. On Fox News Sunday on May 14, First Lady Laura Bush was asked by host Chris Wallace about the Marriage Protection Amendment that "Rove and congressional Republicans are planning to reintroduce." Mrs. Bush, who doesn't favor the amendment, responded waspishly, "I didn't know Karl was an elected official."

A month earlier, the White House announced that Joel Kaplan would replace Rove as deputy chief of staff for policy. The impression was left that Rove was being demoted and stripped of any policy role. He wasn't. And Rove continued his primary task as the White House official in charge of the paramount domestic policy issue of 2006, immigration.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and author of Rebel-in-Chief.