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The rise and fall of Bush's hatchet man

August 24, 2007 | Page 7

LANCE SELFA explains why Karl Rove was never the genius that both his supporters and detractors claimed he was.

WITH HIS announcement that he will resign as White House deputy chief of staff at the end of August, Karl Rove was the latest rat to desert George Bush's sinking ship.

No one accepts his boilerplate explanation about wanting to spend more time with his family. And no doubt, we haven't heard the last of him. But Rove's departure gives us the chance to review what he left in his wake.

Rove was never the genius that his supporters said he was, nor the evil sorcerer that his Democratic detractors feareds. Rove is a competent political consultant who carefully planned and executed the job he was hired to do--get George Bush elected. The fact that he only succeeded once (in 2004) in convincing more Americans to vote for Bush than his opponent should raise some questions about just how much of a "genius" Rove was.

Working with a compliant media, Rove was expert at arranging photo ops for Bush worthy of Hollywood. The best example was the "Top Gun" landing of a Navy fighter carrying Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. In a speech timed perfectly to capture the glow of a West Coast sunset, Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq.

At the time, this looked to be an example of Rove's "genius"--a perfectly staged moment that would carry Bush, the victorious "war president" to a landslide victory in 2004.

But reality intervened. May 1, 2003, was probably the high point for the U.S. in Iraq. Not long afterward, the Iraqi insurgency mushroomed and turned the neocon fantasy of a quick victory over grateful Iraqis into its opposite.

Today, Bush's landing on the Abraham Lincoln is considered a joke and insult to soldiers in Iraq. Every night, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann signs off his popular "Countdown" show by announcing the number of days since "mission accomplished in Iraq."

In fact, Rove was lucky in running Bush's presidential campaigns against two of the most boneheaded Democratic campaigns in a generation.

In 2000, Al Gore managed to "lose" to Bush in a climate that was ripe for a Democratic rout. Despite his pathetic campaign, Gore still won more votes than Bush. Only skullduggery overseen by Bush's brother in Florida and a disgraceful Supreme Court decision put Bush in the White House.

Had Bush not benefited from this chicanery, Rove might have been remembered as the idiot who arranged for Bush to campaign in California and New Jersey--two states Bush had no prayer of winning--on the weekend before Election Day, just to foster the illusion that Bush was supremely confident of a substantial victory.

In 2004, with the Iraq occupation clearly taking its toll on Bush's support, the Democrats chose to market John Kerry as a candidate who would carry out Bush's war more competently. Kerry even threw away his best argument for replacing Bush when he said--in response to a Bush dare--that he would still have voted for an invasion knowing what a disaster the war became.

Perhaps one could score a point for Rove for having had Bush put the question to Kerry, but Kerry's stupidity in answering it the way he did was much more significant in sealing the Democrats' fate.

All of which goes to show that liberals who thought that "Bush's brain" had special powers to fool millions in "red state" America were wrong. But it was much easier to blame the evil sorcerer than admit that the Democratic candidates offered little different to win support from those millions--let alone motivate the millions of others who stay home each Election Day.

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AFTER THE Republicans lost Congress in the 2006 elections, even journalists regularly bamboozled by the myths surrounding Rove began to take a second look. Ever the spinmeister, Rove claimed that Iraq wasn't the key issue that lost Congress for the Republicans, but congressional corruption.

In the Wall Street Journal interview where Rove announced his resignation, he said he should have acted sooner to force resignations of members of Congress accused of corruption. But if Rove didn't move quicker to throw them overboard, perhaps it was because the corruption wasn't theirs alone. It was emblematic of, and an inevitable byproduct of, the way Republican rule in Washington operated.

All of the practices that GOP scandals uncovered--from blatant government favoritism for Republican constituencies, to the laundering of lobbyist money into congressional leaders' war chests--were part of building the GOP political machine. And all of these activities were coordinated out of the White House by Karl Rove.

Presumably, getting "corruption" off the political table in 2006 would have helped Republicans to campaign on the issues that Rove wanted them to highlight--support for Bush's war in Iraq as part of the "war on terror."

In other words, Rove wanted Republicans to grab hold of and campaign on the single issue--the war in Iraq--that was driving voters away from them. This was not exactly the mark of a genius.

But this Rovian attempt to defy reality went beyond the Iraq war. For years, Rove had regaled pundits with talk about how he and Bush would engineer an "ownership society" of neoliberal reforms, like privatized Social Security, that would assure Republican dominance for a generation.

The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson pointed out the Achilles' heel in this. "Rove's miscalculations were actually more fundamental," he wrote. "At bottom, he and Bush overlooked the epochal growth of economic insecurity in America. They refused to see that the very economic changes they celebrated had made Americans understandably nervous and pessimistic to an unprecedented extent about the nation's long-term economic prospects. And so, as employers were abandoning their provision of retirement benefits to employees, Bush and Rove called for abandoning the government's commitment as well."

No wonder the Bush/Rove campaign for privatized Social Security went nowhere, fatally damaging the White House in the process.

In a 2003 interview with the New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann, Rove seemed to foreshadow the Republicans' 2006 comeuppance: "I don't think you ever kill any political party. Political parties kill themselves, or are killed, not by the other political party but by their failure to adapt to new circumstances."

At least that's one Rove prediction that came true.

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