Karl Rove, President Bush's virtuoso adviser, is the most influential White House aide in decades, maybe longer. His departure, if compelled by an indictment in the Valerie Plame investigation, would be demoralizing and a blow to Bush's prospects for a successful second term. Could he be replaced as the most important political and policy adviser to the president? The conventional wisdom in Washington is that no one is irreplaceable. But in my view, Rove is.
With reelection no longer the focus of the White House, Rove's influence has diminished, but only a little. He had, for instance, a minimal role in Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. Yet once she was chosen, he stepped in and recruited conservative supporters such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family. And minutes after Miers's nomination was announced, Rove was on the phone trying to persuade conservative commentators that she is a legitimate judicial conservative.
House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, perhaps Rove's closest friend on Capitol Hill, says Rove is "unique in the history of the White House" because of his "combination of political sensitivity and deep understanding of policy." Rove produces his own synergy, Blunt says. "He creates the impact of more than one person. With him, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."
That's lavish praise but largely deserved. Rove has done remarkable things in his years with Bush. He made Bush more conservative, and he organized a massive conservative coalition behind Bush. Now, with Rove no longer as dominant a force at the White House, Bush appears to be drifting ideologically. Appearances, of course, can be deceptive, but many conservatives haven't waited to find out the truth. They're in revolt.
No presidential aide in the past half-century matches Rove's breadth of influence. James A. Baker III was a strong and effective chief of staff for President Reagan. But he was mainly an implementer. Rove is more than that, an idea man on top of everything else. My rule of thumb is that if you find some political or policy area where Rove isn't involved, you're wrong. He's there. You just haven't found his fingerprints yet.
The closest match may be Bobby Kennedy, but he wasn't a White House aide. He ran the presidential campaign in 1960 for his brother, John F. Kennedy, then became attorney general and an important adviser to the president. Rove was the strategist behind Bush's four election victories, two for governor of Texas, two for president. He became an even more powerful adviser at the White House than Bobby Kennedy, especially on domestic issues. At least in Bush's first term, Rove was first among equals on the White House staff, even when Karen Hughes was a rival for influence.