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.
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."
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.
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.
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."'
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.
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."
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.
that we spend a lot of time on these," he
said quickly, as if reading my mind.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.)
subsequent defeat left the state party more
divided, and the White House did little to
repair the rift it helped open.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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."
he, I asked?
don't know. He takes some rough ones."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
never sensed a lot of expressions of self-doubt.
I don't know that that's part of his personality."
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.
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.
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
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
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."'
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Bai is a contributing writer for the magazine.
His last article was a report on the debate
over the Democratic Party's rural strategy.
Use Notice: This site contains copyrighted material
the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright
owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding
of environmental, political, economic, democratic, domestic and international
issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted
material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance
with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without
profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included
information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to:
If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own
that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.