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Karl Rove’s Endgame

Is the great and powerful Karl about to become a mere mortal?

When summer turns to autumn in election years, Democrats in Washington feel a premonitory sense of doom. This year, as in years past, the political climate suddenly worsened and things seemed to close in on them. There really wasn’t any mystery about what was happening. Unlike the Wizard of Oz, the guy pulling all the levers doesn’t hide behind a curtain. Karl Rove doesn’t have to.

For the third cycle in a row, Democrats had been optimistic about their chances to win. Then, suddenly, things began to change. A series of tough speeches by the president framed the election by going straight for the jugular, as Karl Rove always does: Bush railed that the Democrats were weak on terrorism and imperiled the country. By mid-September, the situation had changed measurably. Bush’s approval ratings, once as low as 29 percent, had climbed above 40 percent. And just like that, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and even the Iraq War seemed to fade away. It looked to Democrats and Republicans both as if Superman had done it again. The grumbling about Bush’s lackluster second term gave way to sheer marvel at Rove’s ability to manipulate the laws of politics.

More than anything else, Republicans had come to rely on Rove to do exactly this: create an environment in which they could win. That was his genius, the reason why President Bush had dubbed him “The Architect” after his reelection in 2004 and why Rove’s oft-stated goal of building an enduring Republican majority was so captivating. But just like in the last administration, it was sex that may finally have unraveled everything for Rove. The young male congressional pages. The lurid e-mails and IM chat sessions. “Get a ruler and measure it.” When Representative Mark Foley’s sex scandal exploded across Washington last week, even Rove must have questioned his power to deliver a win. Rove has always chafed at the idea that he’s merely a campaign operative, viewing himself instead as a visionary who would use Bush’s second term to shape the political landscape for years to come.

But he faces the now-daunting task of simply trying to hang on to Congress. This is Karl Rove’s last stand. Today he is confronting the very real possibility that for all his endeavors, he could wind up as the architect of a crushing defeat.

The story of what went wrong for the Republicans is largely the story of what went wrong for Rove—it is Washington’s Icarus tale, repeated again and again throughout the decades, of brilliance gradually succumbing to hubris. It first took shape in Rove in the early days of the second term, when he claimed a victory trophy of sorts: an official title that recognized him as not just the White House political guru but the policy chief as well.

As the philosopher-boss of Bush’s second term, Rove put policy at the service of politics to a degree that has hastened his own downfall and the president’s. Encouraged by Rove, Bush claimed a “mandate” and launched an aggressive campaign to partially privatize Social Security. Only this time, the public didn’t buy it. But Rove continued to push. “At a certain point,” a Republican colleague who worked with him told me, “the Social Security thing was killing us. But he insisted upon it. There’s a singular belief in his rightness—but Karl’s not always right.”

Rove’s “war president” theme, so powerful in the reelection campaign, was beginning to fray. As the situation in Iraq worsened and calls for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation intensified, Bush’s poll numbers continued to slide. In State of Denial, Bob Woodward reveals that Rove was prominent among the group of aides who convinced the president that he could not afford to fire Rumsfeld. Even today, as Iraq continues to deteriorate, Bush insists on “staying the course”—a stance that’s become a flashpoint for many Republicans in Congress who must now face voters’ wrath over the war. Perhaps most harmful, say Republican insiders, Rove would not relinquish any of his power when he came under investigation and faced possible indictment in the Valerie Plame leak scandal, even while this consumed most of his time and attention.

Those who have known Rove for a long time recognized this trait early on. In 2004, while I was reporting a story on Rove’s methods and tactics, the Republican consultant John Deardourff, who died later that year, told me, “This rap Bush has of never changing his mind and never admitting to a mistake—that’s Karl! That’s where that comes from.” But Rove believed he did not need to adjust to political reality and could instead create his own. It’s not hard to see why he might have believed this, especially after policy was added to his portfolio—it was another weapon in an already fearsome arsenal, and creating a new reality is precisely what Rove does best. But he soon outpaced even his own considerable ability. “Rove’s forays into policy have not been successful,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “What were his three priorities for the second term? Social Security, immigration reform, tax reform: dead, deader, deadest. Add in Rumsfeld, who has become the Robert S. McNamara of this administration and an enormous millstone, and you begin to understand the political environment. Rove not only defended this, but helped to create it.”