Karl Rove’s Endgame

Photo: Illustration by Darrow

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.”

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.”

Foley’s tawdry sexual banter, in other words, has only heightened the stakes for Karl Rove: Win, and he’ll look better than ever; lose, and he’ll look even worse. It’s not quite Greek tragedy. But it would be an ironic and fitting coda if the legendary strategist who used Bill Clinton’s behavior to “restore honor and dignity to the White House” in the person of George W. Bush were to end his career with a devastating loss, cinched by a scandal that was even seamier.

Karl Rove’s Endgame