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The Karl Rove Legacy

Karl Rove, the top White House strategist, announced his resignation Monday saying that he “just thinks it’s time” to move on. In this case, your stance on his departure — whether Rove’s resignation was a politically motivated move or just a spent man calling it quits — depends on where you’re sitting. But more importantly, his political impact will be debated for years.

Karl Rove was loved and loathed like no other political operative in Washington over the last century. He, as the “Brain Trust” for the Bush Administration, had a hand in every move the President made over the decade. Most agree that Rove did everything for Bush but comb his hair, the debate, however, rages on about whether his advice, counsel, and influence was good or bad for the White House. Generally, these debates about Rove’s impact run along party lines, but for the last couple of years many conservatives — including me — have been siding with democrats, saying that Rove’s time had come and gone.

For five strong years, from 2000 to 2005, Rove’s work was beneficial to the White House. During the 2000 campaign, he harnessed the votes of conservative Christians by making abortion and gay marriage the key topics of the day, and this propelled Bush to the White House for his first term. During those early years, especially after the 9/11 attacks, Rove’s order to paint the Democrats as soft on terror, was a genius move that led to Bush’s reelection in 2004 and the taking of the House and Senate as well. In my mind, his work during these five years was superb, but then something snapped.

In 2006, with the Iraq War raging on with no end in sight, Rove seemed to lose his magic. Trying to recover some popularity at home before the 2006 midterms, Rove (and Bush) took on two big domestic issues — immigration and social security reform — in hopes of reviving a President, administration, and party that were spiraling downward at dangerous speeds. The issues however failed to muster enough support in both Congress and the public community, thus beginning Rove’s growing list of failures. Shortly thereafter, the hammer fell when Democrats regained control of the House and Senate. Many argue that Rove’s leadership — or lack thereof — during the 2006 midterm campaigns was clearly harmful to the party. Without clear issues to stand on (gay marriage and abortion’s time had passed, and the war was going too poorly), Rove could not save the party by focusing his machine on any one issue. Furthermore, his mere presence, argued some, seemed to cost the Republican Party votes.

Rove voiced impatience with the notion that his own reputation was on the ballot in 06. He told the Washington Post, “I understand some will see the election as a judgment on me, but the fact of the matter is that, look what has been set in motion — a broader, deeper, strengthened Republican Party, and with an emphasis on grass-roots neighbor-to-neighbor politics, is going to continue.” Two weeks prior to the 06 midterms, Rove predicted that the Republicans would hold onto both houses. It was with that miscast forecast, and the subsequent losses in Congress, when Rove seemed to lose all credibility.

After the loss in 2006, Rove’s troubles only got worse. From the special investigation into who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, to the Congressional inquiries into the firing of nine United States’ Attorneys, Rove continually seemed to be in the center of controversy. Thus, although I’d argue that his influence on the White House was positive for five years, it was just as negative for the final two.

Rove, 56, became engaged in politics at a young age. At the age of nine he purportedly supported Richard Nixon, which led to his involvement in school politics. He became a skilled debater and was elected student council president his junior and senior years in high school. From there his political career took off. A few years into his career, Rove hooked up with George W. Bush. The relationship grew and with each political promotion for Bush, Rove’s influence increased. And furthermore, the couple seemed to do no wrong. Victory after victory, Rove and Bush mowed their way through Texas to take over the White House in 2000. Then, they had a nice run directing the country (and world) for five years, until the well ran dry, and everything began to unravel. 

The Architect, the nickname the President gave Rove for engineering Bush’s string of election victories as governor of Texas and twice as U.S. president, is going home. Like every other move this man has made, his resignation was a calculated political decision, and one that hopefully will better serve the President as he tries to regain the leadership qualities that re-elected him to a second term, when at the time his approval ratings were above 55%.

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Dr. Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist, former chairman of the economics department at George Mason University, and author of More Liberty Means Less Government

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