WASHINGTON – For a man still climbing out of the rubble, Karl Rove seemed in his usual unflappable mood. He roamed around his windowless West Wing office decorated with four Abraham Lincoln portraits, joking with his staff, stuffing copies of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” into his bag and signing the last paperwork of the day.
The architect, as President Bush once called him, has a theory for why the building fell down. “Get me the one-pager,” he cried out to an aide, who promptly delivered a single sheet of paper that has been updated almost hourly since the election with a series of statistics and historical facts explaining that the “thumping” Bush took was not such a thumping after all.
The theory is this: The building’s infrastructure is actually quite sound. It was bad luck and seasonal shifts in the winds – complacent candidates combined with an ill-timed Mark Foley page scandal – that blew out the walls. But the foundation is fine: “The Republican philosophy is alive and well and likely to reemerge in the majority in 2008.”
The rest of Washington might think last Tuesday’s election was a repudiation of Rove’s brand of politics, but Rove does not. For years, he has been the center of hyperbolic attention – the genius, the electoral mastermind, the most powerful presidential adviser in a century, Bush’s brain, the master of the dark arts of wedge politics, the Republican Moses leading conservatives out of the desert.
The mythology of Karl Rove grew to such an outsized degree that when he insisted again and again during the campaign that Republicans would win despite the odds, fearful Democrats convinced themselves that he must know something they did not and waited for an October surprise to spring. Rove encouraged that with supreme confidence. “You are entitled to your math, and I’m entitled to the math,” he told a National Public Radio interviewer who suggested the Democrats might win.
It turns out that Rove is mortal after all, and not always so good at math. And his critics are busy crowing. If he tuned in to CNN or NPR last week, here’s a sampling of what he would have heard about himself.
Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail pioneer: “Clearly a loss for George Bush, Karl Rove.”
Andrew Sullivan, the conservative writer: “Shows him not to be a genius, but to be a real failure as a political strategist.”
Bill Maher, the political satirist: “Karl Rove has led this Republican Party down a hole.”
David Gergen, former presidential adviser: “He went off to hard-liners, and that left an awful lot of moderates … feeling alienated.”
Even Bush seemed to be jabbing Rove in the aftermath of the midterm elections that handed Congress back to the Democrats. At a news conference the day after the elections, Bush was asked about his ongoing book-reading contest with Rove. “I’m losing,” Bush said tartly. “I obviously was working harder in the campaign than he was.”
But those who interpreted that as anything more than an affectionate, if edgy, dig misunderstand the president’s sense of humor and his relationship with his chief strategist, according to White House officials. Bush likes to needle Rove, even nicknaming him “Turd Blossom,” but aides said he does not blame his adviser for the loss, and few believe he would lose his job. Instead, Rove will turn to figuring out a policy and political agenda that can salvage the last two years of the Bush presidency.
“From everything that I’ve heard, Karl will be around till the end,” said Michael Gerson, a former senior White House adviser. “And the reason is simple: People who view him as a campaign operative whose usefulness ends when the last vote is counted are wrong.”
Asked about his plans, Rove fell back on his standard line: “I serve at the pleasure of the president with the agreement of my wife.”
Allies argued that without Rove, the losses would have been even worse. “He deserves a good bit of credit for victories and probably he would admit he should take a little blame for the failure,” said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla. “That does not make him any less of a strategic thinker because he had a loss. If I was taking advice outside of the box from anyone, he would probably be the first person I call.”
Mary Matalin, an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, said Rove is still “the Zen master of movement politics” but envious rivals are eager to gloat over a single defeat. “Karl has done a lot of things that he had to do that were necessary, and if you’ve been around that long you make enemies. They used to call it the green-eyed monster. It’s the nature of the town. People like to take him down.”
Rove’s brand of politics aims to sharpen differences with the opposition, energize the conservative base and micro-target voters to pick off selected parts of the other side’s constituency. As he has in past elections, he designed a strategy this year to paint Democrats as weak on national security and terrorism, the “party of cut and run.”
In an expansive interview about the campaign last week, Rove said that strategy was working until the House page sex scandal involving ex-Rep. Foley, R-Fla., put the Republican campaign “back on its heels,” as he put it. “We were on a roll, and it stopped it,” he said. “It revived all the stuff about Abramoff and added to it.”
The various scandals surrounding convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and other ethical allegations, Rove said, had as much if not more to do with the defeat than the Iraq war. In Rove’s analysis, 10 of the 28 House seats Republicans lost were sacrificed because of various scandals. Another six, he said, were lost because members did not recognize and react quickly enough to the threat. That leaves just 12 other seats lost, fewer than the 15 Democrats needed to capture the House. So without corruption and complacency, he argued, Republicans could have kept control regardless of Bush’s troubles and the war.
“It plays some role, but if Iraq is the determining factor and it is a dominant opinion, then in a blue state like Connecticut you should not have 60 percent of the voters vote for one of the candidates who said, ‘Stay, fight and win,’ ” Rove said, referring to Sen. Joe Lieberman’s victory as an independent. “I don’t deny that it’s a factor, but it is hard to declare” that it is the overriding factor.
The “one-pager” outlines why in his view the losses were not particularly extraordinary and therefore not a repudiation of Bush: The loss of 28 House seats and six Senate seats was roughly comparable to the losses suffered by the party in the White House in the sixth year of other presidencies and the same as the average wartime midterm. Moreover, it says, 23 races were decided by two percentage points or fewer, giving credit to the “GOP Ground Game,” the Rove-devised turnout machine. Overall, a shift of 77,611 votes would have kept the House in Republican hands.