The Rove legacy in decline

/ Source: The New York Times

Karl Rove leaves the White House in anything but victory. His legendary reputation was seriously diminished by the Republican defeat in the 2006 midterm elections, and has been eroded almost every day since then, as President Bush has struggled through his second term.

There probably was no better sign of how far this White House has fallen than at the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames this weekend, a gathering of probably the most committed Republicans in the country. This was where Mr. Rove displayed his political skills to the country in 1999, steering Mr. Bush to a victory in a nonbinding poll that nonetheless cemented his position as his party’s prohibitive favorite.

Mr. Bush’s name was barely mentioned in Ames on Saturday, much less Mr. Rove’s. The winner of the contest, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, offered a pretty grim verdict on the last seven years in Washington when he said, “If there has ever been a time that we needed to see change in Washington, it is now.”

Gone are the days when Republican candidates were expected to fight to become the heir to either the Bush legacy or Mr. Rove himself.

Yet even as Mr. Rove fades from the scene — a process that, in truth, had begun well before he announced his resignation in an interview published today in The Wall Street Journal — his influence over the 2008 Republican presidential campaigns is already quite apparent. His is a legacy that will, for better or for worse, be one of the factors that determine whether Republicans keep the White House in 2008.

Look at the campaign-staff roster of any of the major Republican presidential candidates — Mr. Romney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, John McCain — and it is hard not to find people who have worked with or under Mr. Rove and Ken Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee chairman.

If Mr. Rove is to some extent discredited in Republican circles, blamed for political mistakes that have contributed to the staggering decline of Mr. Bush’s standing with the American public, that has not stopped the people who have worked around him from embracing many of his tactics.

Mr. Romney’s decision to compete in the nonbinding straw poll in Iowa over the weekend was taken right from the pages of Mr. Bush’s 2000 campaign strategy, and Mr. Romney’s aides pointed to Mr. Bush’s 1999 showing as they claimed success here.

Mr. McCain’s entire campaign strategy, initially at least, seemed to clone the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004. That began with recreating the conservative political coalition that Mr. Rove put together for Mr. Bush, and continued with the fundraising network. (Needless to say, that did not prove to be the smartest strategic decision of the cycle.)

Mr. Giuliani’s campaign of 2008 is built, like Mr. Bush’s was in 2004, almost entirely on the idea of attacking Democrats as unable to protect the nation from a terrorist attack.

Over at the Republican National Committee, party officials, at Mr. Rove’s direction, had been working to prepare the 72-hour-plan voter turnout operation — the sophisticated system of identifying friendly voters and coaxing them to the polls — that Mr. Rove and Mr. Mehlman championed in 2000 and 2004, and that arguably accounted for Mr. Bush’s 2004 victory in Ohio. That system will be turned over in this campaign cycle to the party’s nominee, as soon as he is chosen.

Similarly, Mr. Rove and the party have been studying the Democratic candidates and trying to identify their biggest vulnerabilities, in preparation for the kind of concerted early attack that Mr. Rove directed against John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, in 2004.

To that end, Mr. Rove’s description of Hillary Rodham Clinton as “fatally flawed” in his interview with the Journal did not seem like idle chatter.

Mr. Rove said he would not join any of the presidential campaigns. In some ways, though, it’s hard to imagine him staying aloof if his services are requested. This election may be Mr. Rove’s last chance to salvage a reputation that was damaged in 2006. He surely recognizes that being identified with a successful effort to win back Congress and to defeat a “fatally flawed” candidate could restore at least some of the luster to a man who was so long described in Washington as a political genius.

Truth be told, though, as of today he probably would not be very welcome in many of the campaigns. Even some of his former lieutenants are apt, in private moments, to speak of Mr. Rove in tones of disappointment, disillusionment and no small amount of anger.

Many remember Mr. Rove’s lofty ambitions — his talk of overseeing a political realignment that would marginalize Democrats for a generation — and think he aimed too high. Many wonder if a strategy aimed entirely at methodically identifying and stoking the party’s conservative base, with issues like gay marriage, abortion and terrorism, was ever a recipe for long-term political dominance, much less for governing a country.