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.