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Rove's Way
By MATT BAI
October 20, 2002
From The New York Times

White House tours don't pass through Karl Rove's office, but most everything else around the presidency does. Rove determines which lobbyists and supporters get access to the White House, and he weighs in with Bush on every major domestic-policy decision, from stem cells to farm subsidies. At the same time, he has de facto control of the Republican Party and has made it his crusade to win back the Senate; at least two Senate candidates are running this fall just because Rove decided they should, and several others ran unopposed for their party's nomination -- or might as well have -- because Rove bullied potential competitors out of the race.

Rove is hardly the first person to mix politics with policy in the White House, but no adviser before him has denied so stridently that there is any connection between the two. When I asked White House aides about the conflict inherent in being both the party's lead strategist and an influential policy adviser to the president, they seemed genuinely offended, as if I'd just asked whether Rove might be secretly borrowing Apache helicopters on the weekend to strafe Democratic districts. "Karl would never make recommendations to the president for political reasons if it did not make sound policy sense," Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, assured me. "That's a threshold he would never compromise."

This isn't especially convincing, given Rove's influence on a number of issues on which the White House made decisions over the last several months -- the imposition of tariffs on foreign steel, the signing of a bill to create $180 billion in new farm subsidies -- that were flatly at odds with Bush's own policy principles but were expected to benefit G.O.P. candidates. But aides to the president seem to have successfully convinced themselves that the White House pays no heed to polling or political advantage; not only do they believe this, they have sought to make it a central theme of Bush's presidency.

There is a kind of Wonderland dynamic at work here, in which the White House asserts its own curious reality, no matter how plain the contradictions. I recently got a closer look at this phenomenon in Karl Rove's office. It was Ice Cream Day in the West Wing, a tradition Rove started for his staff when he was running Bush's presidential campaign, and so the two of us munched on frozen Crunch bars as we talked. Rove is a jovial and gracious guy, and there is something classically dweeby about him; his face is bespectacled and doughy, and when he talks, he always sounds as if he has a cold.

A good president, Rove told me, will be remembered for making courageous decisions, no matter what the political impact may be, no matter what all the polls or critics or reporters may say about it at the time. "You may be misjudged in the short term, but ultimately history forms a judgment about a president based on the policies and actions taken, and all the little stuff drops away," he said. "You know, Sam Houston had a great line. 'Do right and damn the consequences."'

But not 10 minutes later, when I raised the subject of corporate scandals and asked whether the White House appeared too close to big business, Rove rose and retrieved a stack of papers from his desk.

"Do you trust Bush to do the right thing when it comes to regulating business to prevent accounting abuses from taking place in business?" he recited, reading from a CBS poll. "Sixty-one to 34, 'trust' -- don't trust.' Forty-five percent of the people think Bush's proposals for reforming accounting go too far or are about right, versus 39 percent who say they do not go far enough."

Rove was delving deeper into the minutiae of the data, getting more intense as he descended. "Now that's compared to 39 percent who said they go too far or are about right a month ago, and 43 who said they do not go far enough. So over time Bush has gotten better on this with the American people. There's one other one here. . . . " I was wondering what had happened to damning the consequences when Rove caught himself.

"Not that we spend a lot of time on these," he said quickly, as if reading my mind.

History's verdict may not be determined by how many votes you win in the short term, but in the meantime, Rove's not about to take any chances. Tim Pawlenty experienced Rove's influence firsthand. Pawlenty, the 42-year-old majority leader of the Minnesota statehouse, decided last year to run for the United States Senate against the liberal Paul Wellstone. Pawlenty was just the kind of candidate the Republican Party likes to tout: the son of a truck driver who worked his way through college and law school, a young star who had never lost an election.

The day before his big announcement speech, however, during an appearance at a town-hall meeting, Pawlenty's cellphone rang in his inside chest pocket. Karl Rove was calling. Rove kindly explained to Pawlenty that, with Democrats controlling the Senate by a single seat, the White House had decided it would be better if Norm Coleman, the more widely known former mayor of St. Paul, ran for the Senate instead. Rove wanted Pawlenty to cancel his announcement and get out of the race.

When Pawlenty resisted, Rove got Dick Cheney to call him the next morning and press the case. Pawlenty showed up at his own news conference a few hours later and announced that he would not, in fact, be running for the Senate.

"Once the White House says, 'We've made a decision and we're going in a different direction,"' Pawlenty said recently, "there's not much you can say." He is now the party's nominee for governor. Coleman, meanwhile, acceded to Rove's wishes and is running just about even with Wellstone in a race Republicans see as one of their best chances to pick up a seat.

Even in an exceptionally close election year, Rove's personal and forceful intervention in state races is extraordinary. In South Dakota, he leaned on Representative John Thune -- who was also planning a run for governor -- to get out of the race and take on Tim Johnson, Tom Daschle's protege in the Senate, instead. In North Carolina, he helped clear the field for Elizabeth Dole. In Missouri, he got behind the former congressman Jim Talent early, dispatching both the older and younger George Bushes, several White House aides and a couple of cabinet secretaries to help Talent raise money to take on Jean Carnahan.

"He can go through nearly every race in every district," says Tom Rath, a Bush ally in New Hampshire. "He can tell you more about the South Dakota Senate race than anyone in South Dakota."

Rove's goal for the midterms was to find moderate candidates with statewide appeal. He says he has intervened only in states where there was a near-consensus among Bush's top supporters, but a lot of social conservatives were angry when their candidates got pushed aside in favor of moderates. "What it does is it demoralizes your own party," a Georgia Republican says. In that state, Rove put the White House squarely behind Saxby Chambliss, a moderate congressman who is now running for the Senate against the Democrat Max Cleland.

It's not ideology that fuels Rove's crusade. He is a rightish Republican -- "I grew up out West; I'm just a conservative" -- but he says he believes that the only way to make the G.O.P. dominant is to reshape and expand the party, building on its base of ideological conservatives but broadening its appeal to reach traditionally Democratic voters like Latinos, African-Americans and union members. This means he has to play a political game of Twister, keeping one foot firmly planted on the far right -- pushing policies like Bush's faith-based initiative -- while reaching around to his left with popular centrist proposals on education and prescription drugs.

And so the midterm elections have become a referendum not just on the two parties, but also on Rove's particular brand of politics. If Rove wants social conservatives to continue to step aside while he builds a more inclusive party around candidates like Thune and Coleman, he has to prove that it works at the polls.

So far, Rove has found that influencing the outcome of state races is no easier than counting cards at a casino. After losing both governors' races last year, in New Jersey and Virginia, the White House suffered a third and very public defeat last March, when Rove's favored candidate in the California gubernatorial campaign, the former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, lost the primary to the more conservative Bill Simon, a political novice.

Rove's role in this upset -- one that instantly made the re-election of the incumbent, Gray Davis, more likely -- was a little like the tightfisted owner of a reeling baseball team. On one hand, he insisted that Riordan had to win the race on his own. When Riordan asked the White House for help staffing his campaign, he was rebuffed; the party couldn't spare anyone until after the primary. "He was flailing around and looking for a team," a California Republican says of Riordan. "He asked them for help, and they gave him nothing."

But having invested the prestige of the White House in Riordan's campaign, Rove called the candidate directly to talk strategy, according to sources close to Riordan, and grew angry as Riordan continued to slip. At one point, a Riordan supporter told me, Rove called someone on the campaign and angrily demanded to know why it was falling apart, threatening to cancel tentative fund-raisers planned with Bush. (Rove says that this call never took place and that he had no involvement in the campaign.)

Riordan's subsequent defeat left the state party more divided, and the White House did little to repair the rift it helped open.

Rove is Bush's point man with state parties and contributors, which means that all favors and appointments cross his desk. During a recent visit to Dallas, I sat in the front of a rental car while Rove, sprawled out in the back seat, opened a pile of mail that had been sent from the capital in an overnight parcel. "I love this," he muttered, perusing a letter. "Since nothing in Washington seems right for me,"' he read, "can you put me on the list for ambassadorships?"' He shook his head and tossed the letter aside.

Rove adores politics; he has spent much of his life consumed by it. But unlike the late Lee Atwater, his close friend and mentor, Rove is not content to be seen as a political operative. A self-styled policy guru and manic reader, Rove is as comfortable weighing in on trade-promotion authority as he is discussing the electoral map. His grasp of wide-ranging policy issues in which he has no formal training is remarkable. During a single conversation with me, Rove expounded on the particulars of tariffs and trade laws, farm subsidies and budget projections. Most of this he did off the record, to avoid being cited on any data that might prove faulty in his recollection, but his facts and numbers turned out to be precise.

"He's a one-stop shop," says Mary Matalin, the longtime G.O.P. operative who now works for Vice President Cheney. "He goes way deep into the arguments on both sides, replete with facts. A lot of people have one issue. But Karl knows where everybody is on an issue the president cares about, including all the individuals on the Hill. He knows where the press is on the issue. He knows the politics of the issue."

No other aide has Rove's singular influence on both politics and policy. "I think Karl's going to be one of the most effective and influential presidential advisers since Jim Baker, and maybe the most influential in the last 100 years," says Wayne Berman, a G.O.P. lobbyist who served in the last Bush administration. No wonder, then, that skeptics are inclined to dust Bush's new war plan for Rove's fingerprints. In private briefings with Republicans early this year, Rove identified the war on terrorism as a major selling point for the party's candidates. By August, however, that war was beginning to feel played out, and the ailing economy was creeping back into the headlines. Coincidentally or not, that's when Iraq suddenly seemed to take on new urgency at the White House, and Bush quickly made plans to take his case to Congress -- assuring that war preparations would dominate news coverage in the weeks before the election.

Rove told me that he has spent "very little time" on Iraq, and that his role consists only of helping the president with his message and briefing outside groups and Congress. There's no question that Bush's push for a pre-election Congressional vote on Iraq helped Republican Senate candidates who might otherwise have had to answer questions about the economy. But those critics who suggest that Rove is huddled with generals, conspiring to bomb Baghdad at the most politically opportune moment, are missing an essential point about the way Rove's power actually works.

From the earliest days of the 2000 campaign, Bush and his advisers have defined themselves largely by their un-Clinton-ness. They detest what they are sure was the ethos of their predecessors: to govern by polls rather than by conviction. They are convinced that Bill Clinton and his aides sat around formulating policies according to the latest tracking numbers, and they are equally convinced that Bush is a president who leads rather than follows.

By taking such a characteristically black-and-white approach, however, Bush's team set a trap for itself. Polls and focus groups, which are often constructive indicators that help shape sound policy decisions, became symbols within the White House of everything Bush loathed. They became, in a way, unspeakable. Bush and his advisers, holding firm to the illusion that they are somehow above short-term politics entirely, consider it vulgar even to mention votes in a discussion about policy. "If I went in there and talked about politics," said a G.O.P. lobbyist, "I'd get tossed out."

So when Rove argues in a White House meeting for a specific policy -- like signing the farm bill, for instance -- he does it by marshaling facts and data to make a policy-based argument, even if the policy isn't consistent with Bush's philosophy.

"Karl will almost never make a point that's explicitly about the politics of the issue," a White House aide says. "He will almost always make a substantive point. You will know that part of his understanding of that policy is more likely to involve a political calculation than, say, Larry Lindsey's," referring to Lawrence B. Lindsey, the president's chief economic policy adviser. "But he'll always argue an issue on the merits."

Of course, everyone at the table knows that Rove has already pored through polls and consulted with campaign strategists, but no one says so. It is an odd morality-laundering scheme: if politics is never mentioned out loud, then politics can't possibly be behind the president's decision.

Nothing frustrates Democrats more than the pious image the White House has, with some success, created for itself. When I mentioned to Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House, that Rove likes to say "good policy is good politics," he looked momentarily bemused, as if someone were insisting that the sunlight streaming through his Capitol window was actually a hurricane. "They are about as political an administration," he said slowly, "as I have ever seen."

In plenty of cases, this White House has chosen political reality over its principles, as all administrations do. Bush shrewdly walked away from his proposal for school vouchers when it became apparent that the public wasn't following his lead. When the pro-business White House found itself on the wrong side of public outrage over corporate abuse, it quickly got behind a weak reform bill on Capitol Hill and claimed credit for cleaning up the mess. And Bush signed the new campaign finance law, even though he had long opposed it.

The classic example of how Rove operates, and how politics seeps silently into policy, is the debate over steel tariffs. Last winter, the steel industry hired two close Rove allies -- the political strategist Ed Gillespie and the former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber -- to lobby the administration. They told Rove and other top administration officials that the United States was being swamped by cheap foreign steel and asked for wide-ranging tariffs on imported steel.

At meetings in the Roosevelt Room on the issue, Bush and his West Wing aides -- Rove, Bartlett, the chief of staff Andrew Card and others -- sat across the table from economic and trade advisers. The economists argued against tariffs, saying they would constitute unwarranted protectionism.

Rove, who was by then well versed on the issue, helped steer the discussion by asking pointed policy questions of the advisers, making sure that Bush could hear the answers. What would happen, he wanted to know, if the steel companies didn't get relief?

Rove didn't once mention politics, but he had a deep political interest in the issue. In a private slide presentation Rove delivered to Republicans in June, Rove listed "coal and steel" as a constituency the party had to maintain. For Rove, that means labor as much as business -- one of the key priorities of his master plan for the party is to win over rank-and-file A.F.L.-C.I.O. members in spite of the union's pro-Democratic leadership. According to a source close to the White House, Rove was keenly aware that both the steelworkers and the electricians working in steel plants in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, key electoral states in 2004, belong to the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

In March, Bush sided with Big Steel, issuing broad tariffs to protect the industry and the unions. Almost immediately, the decision proved costly. Foreign competitors were outraged, well beyond what the administration had envisioned, and threatened to bring on a full-scale trade war. The G.O.P.'s free-traders rebelled, openly challenging the administration. A besieged Bush had to roll back the tariffs, granting 727 exemptions.

"The problems with the administration over the past year, and the reason they have fallen into disfavor with economic conservatives, is that it's pretty clear these decisions are being made on politics and not on principle," says Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, an influential conservative business group. "The steel thing in particular was a political miscalculation by the White House and Karl Rove."

Rove and other aides vehemently reject the idea that they are as mired in political calculations as any other White House. "It depends what your definition of political is," Rove says, sounding oddly Clintonian. "Do we advocate an agenda that we think is right for the country and try to persuade people that it is right, thereby garnering their support? Yes." But, he adds, "if by political, you mean we take a poll and figure out where people are so we can get ahead of the parade and claim to be leading it, the answer is no." Rove points out that Bush has never wavered from his convictions on the key issues that defined his campaign: cutting taxes, reforming education, promoting faith-based programs. Faced with terrorist attacks, Bush showed a kind of leadership that redefined his image with the American public. And while Clinton polled on which vacation spot to use, Rove maintains that this White House consults polling and focus groups not to make policies but to figure out how to sell them.

It's in the nature of presidencies to be political, just as it's in their nature to deny that they are being political. But most advisers will do this with a kind of knowing wink. Rove is different; I had the sense that if I reached over and pinned a polygraph to his hand as he talked, he would pass easily. He refused to entertain the suggestion that even a single one of the administration's decisions was influenced by election-year politics. Instead, he used Sam Houston's word to describe all of them: they were the "right" policies to pursue.

This brought to mind the complaint that is often heard among members of Congress and the news media -- that Rove and Bush see every debate as a morality tale, with the White House on the virtuous side of every argument. Rove's insistence that every single decision is about right and wrong, and not about votes, can have the effect of making much of what he says seem incredible. It has also proved, so far at least, to be a very effective strategy.

Opponents often portray Rove as Rasputin with a Western twang, a shadowy figure making all the decisions for an immature president. In fact, their relationship is more intricate. Bush and Rove are bound together by mutual philosophy; Rove shares Bush's distaste for elitism and Ivy Leaguers. But unlike the popular and charismatic Bush, who glided through Yale and Harvard on personality, Rove lacked social skills and connections and knocked around five colleges without earning a degree. There was no Kennebunkport in Rove's childhood -- just a broken home and a lot of moving around out West.

Bush and Rove will often entertain themselves with inside jokes at staff meetings, breaking into laughter over characters they once knew in Austin. But aides say Rove is also Bush's favorite target when he's in a less charitable mood.

"If Karl makes a point that turns out to be wrong, the president will just jump on it," a White House insider told me. "He might say, sarcastically, 'Oh, very nice point, Karl.' The president thinks Karl's invulnerable to the barbs."

Is he, I asked?

"I don't know. He takes some rough ones."

It has been this way since the late 1980's, when Rove grew close to Bush and saw, in his cool demeanor and electable name, serious political potential. At the time, Rove was already the lead strategist in a Republican takeover of Texas, where he was known as a ruthless and sometimes devious competitor -- a "no-rules-in-a-knife-fight kind of guy," as one Texan put it. Rove's unshakable confidence in his own color-coded message charts, combined with a string of impressive victories, earned him a reputation -- which has only grown through the years -- as a kind of mad genius, someone who saw several steps ahead of most political hacks.

Like almost nothing else in Washington, this notion of Rove's brilliance has gone virtually unchallenged. The 2000 campaign seemed to solidify Rove's place in the political strategists' Hall of Fame; running against an incumbent vice president with a robust economy, advising a candidate who was perceived as intellectually indifferent, Rove's team laid waste to fund-raising records and hammered at their message with a kind of discipline normally reserved for prison camps.

But far from being infallible, Rove has also made some whopping political miscalculations, and these point to his vulnerability as a strategist. The word "hubris" comes up a lot when people talk about Rove. So entrenched is he in his own version of reality, so invested is he in his own elaborate plan, that he sometimes fails to see when events in the real world are headed in a different direction. And that's when Rove gets into trouble.

Take, for example, the primary campaign against John McCain. Confident that Bush couldn't possibly lose the primaries and already eyeing a national campaign, Rove went ahead and took the unprecedented step of opening expensive offices in all 50 states -- and Guam, of course -- while McCain worked the street corners in New Hampshire. "We were doing high-fives," Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, recalls. "We said, 'Great, go open an office in North Dakota."'

McCain, casting himself as the agent of reform, demolished Bush in New Hampshire, putting Rove's Titanic-like campaign on the verge of sinking. It took an unseemly campaign in South Carolina by Bush to beat back McCain.

Then, in the last few weeks of the general election, Rove threw an estimated $12 million into California, a Democratic stronghold, because he claimed to see an opportunity that no one else did. He lost the state by 13 points, while other states that really were attainable -- New Mexico, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania -- ultimately slipped away.

Rove's tactical acumen hasn't always been evident at the White House, either, where Bush's approval ratings were on the decline before Sept. 11. Ultimately, Rove has to shoulder much of the blame for the defining event of those first months: the calamitous defection of Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont from the Republican Party, which gave Democrats control of the Senate and Bush's agenda.

Jeffords had been threatening to leave the party, saying he'd been bullied by the White House over his refusal to support a tax cut. But Rove -- who was at that very time preoccupied with recruiting Senate candidates in Minnesota and South Dakota -- never even picked up the phone to call him.

There is in all of this the same discernible pattern that emerges in the rest of Rove's political life: a tenacious attachment to his own worldview, whether it serves him well or not.

I asked Reggie Bashur, an Austin political consultant who is one of Rove's oldest friends, about this. "On a pragmatic day-to-day level, he might make adjustments, but he's not going to make changes in a fundamental plan he's conceived and thought through," he told me, sitting in his office across from Texas's magnificent capitol.

"I've never sensed a lot of expressions of self-doubt. I don't know that that's part of his personality."

I last sat with Rove during a two-hour drive from Waco to Austin. He had just returned from a campaign swing with Bush through Missouri and Oklahoma, and he had arranged for a rental car to be delivered to his hotel.

It was too dark in the parking lot to see the car, so Rove cleverly hit the button on the Enterprise key chain that pops open the trunk, and we went out in search of a Mercury Sable with an open trunk, which wasn't hard to find. I asked him how it had gone in Oklahoma, and he instantly broke out loudly into song. "Ohhhhhk-lahoma!" Rove sang in a heartfelt baritone. Even after a 16-hour day of work and travel, he was buoyant.

As we drove, I told Rove that members of both parties had complained to me that he and the administration insisted on making a moral issue of every disagreement, and were reluctant to consult with their opponents or with the Congressional leadership.

"Look," Rove replied, "this president meets with Tom Daschle, Trent Lott, Denny Hastert and Dick Gephardt probably more regularly -- certainly more regularly -- than any president in modern times."

His assessment could not be further from the way senior Democrats and some Republicans describe the Bush White House. "They bring it in, and you're either for it or against it," Gephardt says. "The whole economic program based on tax cuts, I think, has been a serious mistake, and they don't seem to be willing to change it or even talk about changing it. It's just: 'Over my dead body."'

While members of the White House legislative staff frequently visit the Hill, senators and congressmen say Rove and the president's other top political advisers are detached. "I don't think I have ever gotten a call from Karl Rove or anyone on his staff," a Republican member of Congress told me. "I don't hear them up here. I don't see them up here. I think they're more insulated than any administration I have ever seen."

The Bush team treats the press similarly, and White House reporters have grown so hostile that even some White House allies have suggested a lighter touch. "Karl's attitude is, 'We're going to change Washington,"' a G.O.P. strategist told me. "They're going to have to write what we say, because it's all we're going to give them."'

All of this is just buzz in the background as long as Bush's approval ratings remain anywhere near their present level, and as long as Rove has the party firmly in his grasp. If Republicans win back the Senate, and if a war with Iraq is successful, one can imagine Bush easily winning a second term, with Rove mapping out his strategy on color-coded charts.

But if Rove's strategy fails in November, the party's grass-roots activists will be saying they told him so, and Bush's agenda will be in the hands of a Congress that owes him no favors and a press that feels slighted.

If this concerns Rove at all, there wasn't a hint of it as we drove on through the darkness. We talked about serious issues, including Iraq, and Rove assured me once again that the president would not consider short-term politics in his deliberations.

"I really do think it is a moral imperative for the country that in this post-cold-war era we do not allow rogue regimes to stockpile weapons of mass destruction, to wait until they do before we deal with it," Rove said. "Biological or chemical or radiological or nuclear attacks on the country would just be -- you know, we couldn't have it."

Sam Houston might well have agreed. And yet I knew that Rove had other things on his mind too. He was headed to Austin for a round of meetings, and one of them, it turned out, was with his pollster.

Matt Bai is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last article was a report on the debate over the Democratic Party's rural strategy.

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