The urgent dispatch of Karl Rove to the business of maintaining one-party rule in the midterm elections is the Bush White House's belated startle reflex to its endangerment. Besieged by crises of his own making, plummeting to ever lower depths in the polls week after week, Bush has assigned his political general to muster dwindling forces for a heroic offensive to break out of the closing ring. If the Democrats gain control of the House or Senate they will launch a thousand subpoenas to establish the oversight that has been abdicated by the Republican Congress.
In his acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention in 2004, the "war president" spoke of "greatness" and "resolve" and repeatedly promised "a safer world" and "security," and compared himself "to a resolute president named Truman." Afterward, Bush declared he had had his "accountability moment"; further debate was unnecessary; the future was settled.
But Rove's elaborate design for Republican rule during the second term has collapsed under the strain of his grandiosity. In 2004, Rove galvanized "the base" (ironically, "al-Qaida" in Arabic) through ruthless divide-and-conquer and slash-and-burn tactics. But with Bush winning the election by a bare 50.73 percent, he failed to forge the unassailable Republican realignment that he sought.
Rove is an amateur historian whose goal was modeled on the apparently unlikely figure of President William McKinley. Bush's radicalism bears little resemblance to McKinley's stalwart conservatism except for his friendly orientation toward big business. Rove zeroed in on McKinley because his election in 1896 created a natural Republican presidential majority that was broken only by the party split of 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Progressive and when Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in a Democratic realignment in 1932. Rove and Bush had hoped to use the second term to force radical changes that would alter American government, society and politics. At last, they planned to undo the New Deal and return to the Republican Eden. But Rove's proposal for the privatization of Social Security, among other schemes, was aborted without even a single congressional hearing.
The Republican cathedral of his dreams in ruins, Rove has now discharged formal control of moribund domestic policy to a protégé, Joel Kaplan (a former law clerk of Justice Antonin Scalia's), in a reshuffle of the White House senior staff that includes the rise of another Rove protégé, Josh Bolten, as chief of staff, replacing Andrew Card, a New England Bush family factotum left over from the term of the elder Bush who was not one of Rove's creations. As Bolten has explained privately, Rove remains at the apex of a new iron triangle, just as he stood at the peak of the Texas triangle of Karen Hughes, Joe Allbaugh and himself that managed George W. Bush's 2000 campaign for president.
Rove's lieutenants have been promoted to hold the fort while he begins the epic defense of the embattled regime. His mission is to salvage the Republican majority in Congress from the blighted corruption of its leadership and rescue the Bush White House from the consequences of its own radical policies on everything from the endless Iraq war to skyrocketing gasoline prices. In 2004, Rove was still able to manage the Bush campaign on the momentum of fear from Sept. 11. No longer perceived by the public as a rock of security, Bush's rigid leadership is seen as the source of turbulence. Security was his promise, but disorder has become his byproduct.
So Rove must depend on the tricks of his trade -- arousing fear of gays and other threats (Hollywood) to traditional family values, as he did in 2004; spinning national security to cast the Democrats as weak and unpatriotic, as he did in 2002; using well-financed front groups and his regular corps of political consultants to outsource smears and produce them as television and radio commercials, as he did to destroy John McCain in the Republican primaries of 2000 and John Kerry in 2004; and conducting whispering campaigns about the personal lives of those he seeks to annihilate, as he has done since his devastating rumor-mongering about then Texas Gov. Ann Richards as a "lesbian" helped install his patron in the Lone Star Statehouse in 1994 as the springboard for the White House.
Rove must concentrate his mind with one gimlet eye fixed on special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who on Wednesday summoned him back to testify before a federal grand jury. As Rove develops strategy for elections to come, he is a subject under investigation for dirty tricks past.
The ferocious defense of Bush's radical presidency is being mounted on other fronts. In the face of the generals who commanded the troops in Iraq and demand the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for blind arrogance and unswerving incompetence, Bush has reaffirmed his support. In the last two weeks, Rumsfeld has appeared on 14 right-wing radio talk shows, securing "the base" and giving full vent to his untethered personality. On April 18, Laura Ingraham interviewed him on her syndicated program. The transcript as it appears on the official Department of Defense Web site records: "Ingraham: I saw Charles Krauthammer (the conservative pundit) a couple of nights ago saying there is absolutely no chance that you would step down. Is he right about that? Secretary Rumsfeld: He is a very smart man. [Laughter.]"
The administration's die-hard supporters in the Senate, meanwhile, are fighting to prevent the Armed Services Committee from calling the generals to testify. Frustrating congressional oversight is essential to preserving executive power. Checks and balances are the enemy of the Bush White House.
Vice President Dick Cheney, a principal author and defender of this constitutional doctrine, maintains his ever-vigilant grip on the executive branch, even as he was caught napping during a meeting last week with Chinese President Hu Jintao. David Addington, his chief of staff, extending his discipline far into the national security apparatus, never rests.
For Rumsfeld and Cheney the final days of the Bush administration are the endgame. They cannot expect positions in any future White House. Since the Nixon White House, when counselor Rumsfeld and his deputy Cheney watched the self-destruction of the president, they have plotted to reach the point where they would impose the imperial presidency that Nixon was thwarted from doing. Both men held ambitions to become president themselves. The Bush years have been their opportunity, their last one, to run a presidency. Through the agency of the son of one of their colleagues from the Ford White House, George H.W. Bush (whom President Ford considered but passed over for his vice president and chief of staff, giving the latter job to Cheney), they have enabled their notion of executive power. But the fulfillment of their idea of presidential power is steadily draining the president of strength. Their 30-year-long project on behalf of autocracy has merely produced monumental incompetence.
Yet Rumsfeld and Cheney do not really care. Bad public opinion polls do not concern them. Their ambition is near its end. They want to use their remaining time accumulating as much power in an unaccountable executive as possible.
Ironically, the more Bush tries to entrench his imperial presidency the weaker he becomes. Believing that his single-mindedness, stark convictions and bold indifference to criticism have been the secret of his success, he is confounded and baffled by the inability of his constant redoubling of effort to produce the same results as before. Why should the traits that pulled him up suddenly have a reverse magnetic effect of pulling him down? At his peak, he proudly declared, "In Texas, we don't do nuance." Now he reasserts himself as "the decider."
And yet he feels compelled to explain the nuances of his decisions. On Monday, Bush appeared before the Orange County (Calif.) Business Council to justify the origins of the Iraq war and his foreign policy in general. "I also wanted to let you know that it's before you commit troops that you must do everything you can to solve the problem diplomatically. And I can look you in the eye and tell you I feel I've tried to solve the problem diplomatically to the max," he said.
Just the day before, on CBS's "60 Minutes," Tyler Drumheller, the former CIA chief in Europe, disclosed that during the run-up to the Iraq war the Iraqi foreign minister, Naji Sabri, had been bribed to hand over military secrets. "We continued to validate him the whole way through," Drumheller said. His information was that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. But the White House dismissed the intelligence. "The policy was set," Drumheller said. "The war in Iraq was coming. And they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy, to justify the policy."
Drumheller's account is consistent with the famous Downing Street memo, memorializing British Prime Minister Tony Blair's conference with his top national security and intelligence advisors on July 23, 2002. The memo stated: "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
In his Orange County speech, to illuminate his thinking, Bush summoned the authority of the "higher Father." "I base a lot of my foreign policy decisions on some things that I think are true. One, I believe there's an Almighty." This is one Bush doctrine that is inarguable. But Bush's profession of faith is precisely the message that incites Islamic terrorists in their jihad against the Christian crusader. For Bush, the culture war and the war on terror are one and the same. Understanding that the latter undermines the former, that his policy and politics are at cross-purposes, involves too much nuance.
The more beleaguered Bush becomes, the more he is flattered by his advisors with comparisons to great men of history whose foresight and courage were not always appreciated in their own times. Abraham Lincoln is one favorite. Another is Harry Truman, who established the framework of Cold War policy but left office during the Korean War deeply unpopular with poll ratings sunk in the 20s. Lately, Bush sees himself in the reflected light of Winston Churchill, bravely standing against appeasers. "Never give in -- never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in," Churchill said in 1941 as Britain stood alone against the Nazis. "Bush tells his out-of-town visitors to think of how history will judge his administration 20 years hence and not to worry about setbacks in Iraq," conservative columnist Arnaud de Borchgrave writes.
Of course, Bush does care about the outcome of the midterm elections. He knows full well the catastrophe that his already wounded presidency would suffer if the Republicans were to lose one or the other chamber of Congress. Once again, he is depending upon Rove's skill. But insofar as his policies are concerned "the decider" has decided that public opinion doesn't really matter.
On Tuesday, Bush reached the invisible but fateful mark of 1,000 days left in his term. It is a magical number associated with the 1,000 days of President Kennedy, the time taken as the title of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s memoir of that White House. Bush cannot run again and has no obvious successor who will hold his team together. On March 22, he announced that he would leave to the next president the decision about continued U.S. presence in Iraq. In the final days of his backward Camelot he will never, never, never change his basic policies, the source of his unraveling.
The greater the stress the more Bush denies its cause. In his end time he has risen above his policy and is transcending politics. In his life as president he has decided his scourging is his sanctification. Bush will be a martyr resurrected. The future will unfold properly for all the wisdom of his decisions, based on fervent faith, upheld by his holy devotion. Criticism and unpopularity only confirm to him his bravery and his critics' weakness. Being reviled is proof of his righteousness. Inevitably, decades hence, people will grasp his radiant truth and glory. Such is the passion of George W. Bush.