The future of Karl Rove

Some White House insiders expect him to resign sooner or later, but Bill Kristol says the president needs him to stick around.

Published November 7, 2005 2:11PM (EST)

Karl Rove may or may not be indicted in the Valerie Plame case. Either way, Time is reporting, White House insiders think it's likely that Rove will step down as the president's deputy chief of staff before too much longer. If he's indicted, he'll leave immediately, like Scooter Libby did. If he's not, he's likely to wait just long enough to make it seem plausible that his departure wasn't forced by scandal.

Rove's colleagues are already concocting cover stories, Time says. Rove is tired; his family misses him; he's got legal bills to pay; his most important work is done. The reality is this: The Plame case continues to dog the president, and Rove's continued presence makes it worse. As Howard Fineman writes in Newsweek, the president got split-screen treatment on local TV as he arrived in Argentina last week. One half of the screen showed Air Force One landing, the other showed Scooter Libby, and the headline said "CIA ESCANDALO." Once he was on the ground, Bush took five questions from White House reporters; four were about the Plame case. On Capitol Hill, the Plame case gives new impetus to Democrats' questions about the administration's use of prewar intelligence. And across the country, poll numbers show that Americans are broadly unhappy with their president, and that they no longer think of him as the honest and trustworthy guy they once did. Desperate to patch up public relations, the administration let it be known over the weekend that it was sending all White House aides with security clearances to an ethics class on, among other things, the handling of classified information.

Bush needs a fresh start, and it's hard to imagine how he makes one with a tainted political director lurking in the background. Time says "well-wired administration officials" are predicting a major housecleaning: Rove goes, and so too do Andy Card, Scott McClellan, probably John Snow and maybe Donald Rumsfeld.

And yet, there's this: Today in the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol argues that it would be a huge mistake for Bush to ease Rove out the door. The president has a problem, Kristol acknowledges, but it's not Rove. It's Bush himself. "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," Kristol argues. "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."

You might have missed the signs that Bush has moved to the middle, but Kristol insists that they're there. Exhibit A: The president's attempt to reform Social Security failed because he tried to "meet the his Democratic adversaries halfway" by holding open the possibility of higher payroll taxes for the middle class and endorsing benefits cuts for future retirees. That's not how we remember it, exactly, but whatever. Kristol says the key for Bush -- and for the Republican Party -- is to tack right, "being unapologetic about the war; explaining why Saddam had to be removed, that there were terror ties between Saddam and al Qaida, and why the war needs to be seen through to victory; fighting for [Samuel] Alito, and other well-qualified conservative judges at the appellate level; advancing pro-growth, pro-family tax reforms."

But first off, Kristol says, Bush must keep Rove on board: "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."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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