Should President Bush Fire Karl Rove?

Bill Kristol believes the conventional wisdom is wrong on the question “Should Bush Fire Rove?

Bush’s decline in the polls long preceded the recent surge of publicity in the Plame case. But contrary to the media myth that Bush has been uncompromising and ideological, the strategy that the president has pursued for most of 2005 has been an attempt at accommodation. It has reflected a hope that he could move beyond the polarization of the 2004 campaign and appeal to the middle. It’s understandable that Bush would be tempted by such a strategy: Who wants to go down in history as a polarizing president? But the strategy has been a mistake.

Most of the decline in Bush’s numbers happened in the first half of this year, when the main message of the administration was a proposal for Social Security reform that tried to meet his Democratic adversaries halfway. To gain bipartisan support for Social Security reform, the administration held open the possibility of higher payroll taxes for the middle class, and endorsed benefit cuts for future retirees. This “good-government” aspect of reform was emphasized as much as conservative-backed private accounts. Bush also stopped highlighting his first-term tax-cutting agenda, and indeed chose not to push for legislation extending his tax cuts and making them permanent–a core promise of the 2004 campaign.


On the issue of Iraq, it was not so much a Bush attempt to be bipartisan or to compromise that was the problem. It was a refusal to address the Democrats’ unvarying drumbeat that “Bush lied to get us into the war.” Never mind that it would have been lunacy for Bush to lie about the existence of weapons of mass destruction, knowing that once Iraq was occupied none would be found. If voters hear, repeatedly, a damaging accusation that remains largely unrebutted, they will have a tendency to assume that it is true. Moreover, the decision to downplay Iraq following the successful January 2005 parliamentary elections was a cardinal error on another level. In wartime, voters’ perception of how the war is going will tend to trump all other issues, including a strong economy. Wartime presidents pay a price for a failure to keep voters in the loop on the progress of the war. The president needs to explain setbacks as well as victories, and laying out the path to eventual success. There are signs President Bush and his foreign-policy team are on the road to correcting this problem.

During most of his 2005 job-approval decline, Bush’s ratings continued to be high among Republicans and conservatives. This base support showed signs of weakening only when the president signed the pork-laden highway bill, overreacted to Hurricane Katrina by promising a major new anti-poverty program, and nominated Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. Interestingly, the polls showing new lows for Bush were taken before voters could assimilate the news of Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court, which could begin to reverse his conservative decline.

Even if a post-Alito uptick happens, though, Bush’s 2005 decline will remain substantial. And polls suggest a strong Democratic lead in the congressional elections of November 2006. It is now evident that if the administration and Republicans don’t fight back aggressively, Democrats will keep gaining, and the 2006 election will be rough for Republicans. This means Republicans–and the Bush administration–must accept the persistence of the polarization that has marked American politics since the election of 2000.

This is where Karl Rove comes back in. Between the 2000 election and the 2004 election, Rove became the master of polarization politics. And now, with this year’s ill-fated experiment in trying to govern from the middle surely over, polarization along ideological and party lines is a fact of life. Ethics classes won’t ameliorate Democratic hostility to Bush. Nor will firing Rove. In fact, throwing Rove overboard–dropping the political adviser who has been with Bush during his past comebacks and greatest triumphs–will increase the sense of a White House in disarray and retreat.

Keeping Rove; being unapologetic about the war; explaining why Saddam had to be removed, that there were terror ties between Saddam and al Qaeda, and why the war needs to be seen through to victory; fighting for Alito, and other well-qualified conservative judges at the appellate level; advancing pro-growth, pro-family tax reforms–this agenda won’t enamor Bush to liberals. But it could lay the groundwork for a Bush comeback. The alternative is three long years of ducking, dodging–and defeat.

For many of the reasons Kristol states, I’m not sure that firing Rove would help the president. It might well be seen as a sign of weakness. Further, to the extent the administration is perceived as corrupt, the blame goes, as it should, to the man on top, not his mostly invisible advisors.

On the other hand, while Kristol rightly gives rove credit for many of the GOP’s electoral successes, it should be noted that Rove is the president’s top political advisor now. That means that all of the missteps Kristol identifies have happened on Rove’s watch. One must conclude, then, that either Rove has made a series of poor political calculations or that Rove’s advice is now being routinely ignored. Either would seem to be grounds for replacing him.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Supreme Court, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Just Me says:

    I think he has a lot of good points.

    Bush seems to be at his worst, when he is trying to please the other side of the aisle. If Bush would go conservative-and support a strong fiscal conservative stance in addition to the social conservatism, I think he would do better.

    I also think he should fire somebody-but not Rove, I think it is time for McClellan and the admin’s press people to get a change up. I think the Admin does a terrible job in the media relations area.

  2. Bithead says:

    To answer your question, I think I can sum this up quickly;
    The answer is: ‘No’.

  3. DL says:

    If he does, the liberals are, once again, controlling how the Republicans govern.

    It is time to stop walking softly, but carry that big stick and start using it.

    Demand the liberals stop obstructing how the voter’s chose to run this country, simply because they couldn’t ressurect sufficient numbers of dead democrats in the last election.

    Notice should have been served to the Dems the day they pulled the rule 51 crap, that such action now sets the republicans free to use the nuclear option without their permission – since it was well understood by the masses to be mis-use of the rules for political partisan gain.

  4. Herb says:

    Bush should NOT fire Rove, The problem Bush has is his hesitation to play politics like the Dems do. The Dems will stoop to any level to put Bush down and Bush just sits there without saying a word. Bush must go on the offensive if he is to regain his numbers. If Bush gits rid of Rove, then the Reps better just hang it up and give Congress and the White House to the Dems in 2006 and 2008. The constant chatter by a few here on OTB gives testament that the “Bush Lied” campaign has had some success in spite of the fact that a lot of Dems said the same thing about WMD in Iraq, But, you never see a mention of that fact from the Dems. or the few on OTB The entire lie that Bush lied is politics at its lowest and the Dems are masters of the Big Lie that has devided this Country and emboldened OBL and other terrorists to strike any where they want.

    Every CEO, VP, Director and Manager of any company has the duty and responsibility to be loyal to those who are loyal to them and Bush is no exception. If Rove leaves, the Dems will cry “Success” and tell the world that they (Dems) have now “proven” that “Bush Lied”.

    Bush had best keep Rove “on staff” and start his own campaign of tearing down the Democrat Lie or he, (Bush) is through.

  5. DaveD says:

    Difficult to add anything to the posts above. I agree that Bush should not can Rove. Bush is a straightforward noncomplex individual who despite his obvious dependence on Rove communicates best when he, himself, seems fully committed to issues as he understands them. Despite Bush’s willingness to compromise, he appears to become muddled and loses his enthusiasm and focus when this occurs. I think Rove should help Bush stand on the messages upon which he was elected twice.

  6. Bachbone says:

    Why does anyone think liberal attacks would stop or poll numbers improve if Bush gave in on anything? Polling questions are skewed almost daily by the MSM. Polled individuals are skewed to suit the MSM’s aims. Liberals, like sharks, are never satisfied with just one drop of blood. Instead of caving, start hitting back with facts to shore up Bush’s case. Bush can’t get anywhere positive by allowing his enemies to dictate his actions.

  7. ken says:

    Keeping Rove; being unapologetic about the war; explaining why Saddam had to be removed, that there were terror ties between Saddam and al Qaeda,….

    James, so Kristol, unsurprisingly, is counseling Bush to defend Rove by reinitiating his campaign of lies in defense of his war on Iraq. And you agree with him?

    This is a sure way to demonstrate a lack of self respect.

    Is defending Rove, regardless of his immoral, unethical and treasonous transgressions, more important than our nation to you?

    You know James just because you are a Republican you still have the option of doing the right thing. Don’t you? Or do you Republicans surrender your free wills when you proclaim your party affiliation?

  8. James Joyner says:

    ken: Did you actually read my post?

  9. SoloD says:

    Bush supposedly asked Rove about his involvement in the leak and, if he did, either Rove lied to him, or told him the truth and allowed the President and the administration to mislead the American public.

    Put that way, he should be gone. But this is politics and logic doesn’t always have a role in the political decisions a President needs to make. Rove will stay as long as he wants, or until he is indicted, which I think remains a real possibility.

  10. Brian says:

    DL, Herb, and Thunderbird-

    You guys sure have a skewed view of the world. The Democrats are not “sharks,” not “the masters of the Big Lie,” and certainly do not have a “master plan.” If we did, we would be in power by now. The Republicans control EVERYTHING. If they can’t get their agenda enacted, perhaps you guys should blame the incompetent leadership of your party, rather than the rotten Democrats. Honestly, if you can’t ram through the laws you want now, how will you manage in times where you have to share power?

    And really, stop the petty crying about the Democrats constant drumbeats. When you have no power, talking is really your only recourse.

  11. Herb says:

    James, Ken reads your posts, but is incompetant to comprehend the content. He lets his twisted lying little mind get in the way of understanding only the basics of any subject. Kens problem is that he is guilty of the same thing he accuses Bush of, LYING.


    I said the Democrats are “Masters of the big lie” because there is little that they don’t lie about. And, the Dems are NOT in power now because the Reps. and American people voted them OUT. OUT, OUT, Now, don’t let your “poor loser” attitude prevent you from understanding that.

  12. McGehee says:

    The Republicans control EVERYTHING.

    Dial back the hyperbole a few thousand, okay?