LAST FRIDAY, a memo to White House staffers was issued (and released to reporters): Time to go back to class! All White House staffers with security clearances were instructed by the president to attend ethics briefings, including on "the rules governing the protection of classified information," beginning this week. A senior White House aide told the Washington Post that the decision was arrived at in a meeting involving the president, chief of staff Andrew Card, and White House counsel Harriet Miers, who will be conducting the mandatory classes. Also on Friday, the president refused to comment on deputy chief of staff Karl Rove's future, pending the outcome of what he called "a very serious" and "important" investigation by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.
These and numerous other hints suggest that, even assuming he is not indicted in the Plame leak investigation, Karl Rove is in danger of losing his job. His "resignation" would undoubtedly be presented as entirely voluntary. It might be accompanied by some kind of apology for misleading the president and others at the White House as to his role in the Plame affair--or he might leave while acknowledging no wrongdoing at all. In any case, Rove's departure would be called a resignation, not a firing. But a firing it would be, and the rationale would be that Rove has become a political albatross for the Bush administration.
But would firing Rove help Bush? No. It would reflect an attempt by Bush to find favor among "good government" moderates and allegedly reasonable critics. It would signal a repudiation of the dominant political strategy of Bush's first term. And it would most likely prove a disaster.
After all, it was with Rove as his primary adviser that Bush put together the remarkable back-to-back election successes of 2002 and 2004. Bush had barely won the presidency in 2000, and Republicans had lost five Senate seats. Yet with Rove's advice, Bush was able to help the GOP gain seats in both the House and the Senate in 2002 and 2004, as well as building a three million vote majority in the 2004 presidential election.
But since his second-term inauguration, political victories have been hard to come by. Bush's decline in the polls long preceded the recent surge of publicity in the Plame case. But contrary to the media myth that Bush has been uncompromising and ideological, the strategy that the president has pursued for most of 2005 has been an attempt at accommodation. It has reflected a hope that he could move beyond the polarization of the 2004 campaign and appeal to the middle. It's understandable that Bush would be tempted by such a strategy: Who wants to go down in history as a polarizing president? But the strategy has been a mistake.
Most of the decline in Bush's numbers happened in the first half of this year, when the main message of the administration was a proposal for Social Security reform that tried to meet his Democratic adversaries halfway. To gain bipartisan support for Social Security reform, the administration held open the possibility of higher payroll taxes for the middle class, and endorsed benefit cuts for future retirees. This "good-government" aspect of reform was emphasized as much as conservative-backed private accounts. Bush also stopped highlighting his first-term tax-cutting agenda, and indeed chose not to push for legislation extending his tax cuts and making them permanent--a core promise of the 2004 campaign.
But Social Security reform went nowhere, as Democrats were in no mood to compromise, and the political damage from the effort remains evident today. In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News national survey, when asked which party, Republicans or Democrats, can better handle a set of ten national issues, the greatest Democratic advantage was on Social Security, 56 to 29 percent. Thus the GOP is faring the worst on the issue Bush talked about the most in the first half of 2005.
Furthermore, on the economy, Democrats now have a lead of 56 to 34 percent--this at a time when GDP growth and employment have reached their best levels of the Bush presidency. This suggests that the early-2005 decision to emphasize Social Security (with its dark vision of a mounting actuarial/demographic deficit) at the expense of pro-growth themes robbed Bush of much of the credit for a strong economy.
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.