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.
Conservatives should be Rove's greatest enthusiasts, but many of them aren't. One Republican House member holds Rove responsible for Bush's decision to sign the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Rove told him, the congressman said, that signing the legislation would spare the president months of bad press and that the Supreme Court would strike down much of the measure anyway. Instead, the court upheld it.
Rove has at least four great achievements, all of which conservatives should appreciate. A moderate in the 1980s, Rove could, to borrow a quip of Democratic patriarch Robert Strauss, teach it round or teach it flat. But by the 1990s, he was bringing conservative intellectuals and policy experts to Austin to meet with then-Governor Bush. That continued in the White House. The result: When Bush ran in 2004, he was palpably more conservative than in 1994 when he made his first run for governor. That's achievement number one.
Number two was his recognition, early in Bush's first term, of the meaning of the polarized electorate after the dead-heat election results of 2000. It meant there weren't as many moderates or independents or swing voters or soft Democrats who might be attracted to a Republican president who tilted to the center. Bush would have to concentrate on keeping conservatives happy to create a solid (but bare) majority of support.
Rove's third achievement is tied to this: The creation of a national Bush bloc, a McKinley-like coalition of the upper, middle, and working classes. In Washington, Rove has spent considerable time with conservative journalists and think tank scholars. But his role outside the Beltway is more significant. Almost alone among Republican bigwigs, Rove has recognized that social and religious conservatives — working class conservatives — were an army waiting to be deployed. They became a major part of the 1.4 million campaign volunteers who in 2004 helped Bush increase his vote total by 23 percent over what he received in 2000. Since John Kerry attracted 16 percent more votes than Al Gore in 2000, what the volunteers accomplished was critical. Without them, Bush might have lost.
Number four: Hispanics. Rove deserves enormous credit, as does Bush, for dramatically expanding the Republican share of the Hispanic vote. Democrats have counted on a growing number of Hispanic votes as part of an emerging Democratic majority that is yet to emerge. What went wrong? Rove and Bush stole a huge chunk of the Hispanic vote with an appeal based on social conservatism, patriotism, and an entrepreneurial spirit. The Hispanic vote for a Republican president rose from 21 percent in 1996 to 35 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in 2004.
One of the few smart things Democrats said after the 2004 election was that they needed a Karl Rove of their own. Indeed they do. But Bush and Republicans have the original. If they lose him, it will create a void that cannot be filled. Sure, Rove can give strategic advice from the sidelines. But a key to his success has been his proximity to the president. Bush needs him at the White House. Conservatives need him there, too.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
By Fred Barnes