It's not often that the White House press corps finds itself spinning in different directions on the same story, but it's happening now as reporters try to explain what has become of Karl Rove. Here's where everyone agrees: The president's chief political advisor and deputy chief of staff will no longer be in charge of day-to-day policy operations. But is that a demotion, a lifting of a burden or just a reflection of election-year realities? It depends on which media source you follow.
Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times: "The decision to take away [Rove's] daily control over the White House's policy-making apparatus is the first time his role has shrunk, and it is a stark reversal from the heady aftermath of Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election victory, when Mr. Rove's portfolio was expanded to give him formal control over policy ... The change in Mr. Rove's responsibilities ... was widely interpreted in Washington as a step down in stature for Mr. Rove and an acknowledgment of policy failures in the last year."
Ron Fournier for the Associated Press: "Technically, it is a demotion. But in terms of real power and influence, Rove remains virtually unmatched at the White House."
Dan Balz in the Washington Post: "Rove probably will remain one of the most influential voices in the White House, but his shift in responsibilities suggests that new White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten intends to operate a different White House than his predecessor, Andrew H. Card Jr., who resigned after more than five years at the helm."
Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei in the Washington Post: "Among people close to the White House and in Republican circles around Washington, there remained debate whether the move should be regarded as a demotion or reassignment. The answer will remain unknown until Bolten's operation has more time to prove itself. But there was agreement that the move was a negative verdict on the status quo."
Tom Hamburger, Richard Simon and Ronald Brownstein in the Los Angeles Times: ". . . a Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking said the shift in Rove's job did not represent a diminution in his standing. . . . The strategist said the 'principal goal' was to free Rove up so that he could concentrate on long- and short-term strategy issues, such as how to improve Bush's image and bolster the Republican Party."
Why the diverging views? Our guess is that the usual White House spinners are having a hard time putting a consistent gloss on the Rove story. On the one hand, Bolten wants to be seen as asserting control, and -- more important -- Bush needs to show that he's taking meaningful steps to "refresh" a White House in dire need of change. On the other hand, the president isn't one to acknowledge that things aren't working perfectly, nor is he inclined to admit defeat through a public putdown of one of his core loyalists. See, Department of Defense, secretary of.
Our take? The change in Rove's role is more a reflection of reality than anything else: The president's policy agenda is going nowhere right now, and the 2006 elections are where the action is. That's where Rove will be, again -- assuming, of course, that he doesn't find himself indicted first.