One of the clearest signs of Rove’s waning influence is Republicans’ new willingness to criticize him (though few will yet do so on the record). Most of the criticism seems to stem from a belief that he has taken too much credit for the party’s successes over the past six years, while at the same time positioning himself to escape blame in the event that Republicans lose in November.
One of the open secrets in Washington is that Rove is nowhere near as involved as he was in previous elections. While Rove has met with small groups of vulnerable Republicans to talk about their races, Congressional Committee members scoff at the notion that he is running the show. “The NRCC doesn’t need adult supervision,” says one GOP strategist heavily involved in the midterms.
A gauge of the party’s displeasure with Rove can be seen in his colleagues’ willingness to break publicly with the Myth of Rove. In his book, Applebee’s America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect With the New American Community (co-written with Douglas Sosnik and Ron Fournier), published last month, Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist in the Bush-Cheney campaign, all but takes credit for recognizing and developing the sophisticated targeting and persuasion techniques that most experts believe enabled Bush to win a second term—going so far as to paint Rove as a dupe who almost failed to recognize what his deputy was showing him. Another former deputy, Ken Mehlman, who is currently the chairman of the Republican National Committee, seemed to bridle at Rove’s status as “The Architect” when he told Adam Nagourney of the New York Times last month, “I think a bunch of us were architects.” What has most upset Republican Party officials, however, is their perception that Rove tried to claim an undue part in winning the June special election in California’s 50th District to replace Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Most experts judge that it was Mehlman and the veteran operatives at the NRCC who pulled out the narrow victory. When Rove sought to muscle in, one insider told me, the tension erupted into “shouting matches between Karl and Ken.” Said one Republican strategist, weary of Rove’s behavior when unaccompanied by his usual success, “The highest purpose in Karl Rove’s world is to serve Karl Rove.”
One of the stranger phenomena in Washington right now is the sharp disparity between what’s said about Rove privately in political circles and what’s said about him publicly, particularly in a wave of new election-season political books. Shortly after the 2004 election, a raft of serious authors set out to examine Rove, hoping to play Boswell to his Johnson as he went about the business of building his permanent majority. You don’t have to read past their titles to grasp where they’re coming from: Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power, by Thomas Byrne Edsall; One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century, by Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten; and the outright worshipful The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008, by Mark Halperin and John Harris. They set out to canonize a master, but that figure has all but vanished.
“This rap Bush has of never changing his mind and never admitting to a mistake,” said a consultant. “That’s Karl. ”
Many of Rove’s colleagues point out that the media’s obsession with Rove has distorted his true role. “The way Karl impacted races in ’02 and ’04 was not by having a hand in every campaign,” says Terry Nelson, the political director for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. “His impact was in how the president communicated with voters what he was trying to do. The president has a great ability to establish the environment in which candidates can run, and Karl’s great accomplishment was to establish one in which they could succeed.”
There is an element of poetic justice to Rove’s current plight: He is more marginalized than all but the best informed believe him to be—but as the chief whatever of Bush’s second term, he is responsible in a much broader way for the climate that Republicans must overcome on November 7, and almost certain to pay a heavy personal price if they don’t. The past few weeks have taken an ominous turn for Rove. First there were the damning leaks from the National Intelligence Estimate that dashed Bush’s effort to turn the public’s attention back to terrorism. Bob Woodward’s explosive new book only made things worse. And then Foley.
But Rove wouldn’t be Rove if he hadn’t prevailed in the most difficult of circumstances. “If Republicans can come back, against the odds, and hold Congress, Rove will be restored to demigod status,” observes Sabato. “But if they lose, he’ll be exactly what he least wants to be: just another run-of-the-mill political aide to a president, and nothing more.”