It’s true that August is a bad time for a product launch, as Andy Card famously said of the American invasion of Iraq. But it’s an ideal time for a product dump—which is no doubt why Karl Rove waited until Congress had adjourned for August recess and elite media apparatchiks in metro D.C. had repaired to their various coastal compounds to signal to The Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot that he was calling it a career at the end of the month. As far as the Bush White House is concerned, anyway.
The news of Mr. Rove’s departure wafted indifferently through the corridors of consensus in Washington, another sign that the political fortunes of a once-ascendant Republican coalition seem in free fall, despite Mr. Rove’s own game efforts to predict the nomination of a “fatally flawed” Democratic standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton, in 2008 and a post-recess President Bush skyrocketing into the 40-percent approval range.
Such sentiments are a faint echo indeed of Mr. Rove’s world-conquering ambition to install a permanent G.O.P. majority in all three branches of government—and in the permanent government’s K Street lobbying offices for good measure. The Rove who was masterminding the 2004 election would snort derisively at the notion that his own charge to keep, the George W. Bush presidency, would look ahead longingly at the day when a mere 60 percent of the country disapproved of its rule.
But then the big anticlimax of Mr. Rove’s decampment is itself an indication of how much smoke, and how many mirrors, got dragged into the stage management of past campaigns of G.O.P.-engineered cultural resentment and mass fear. “Karl Rove represents a certain strain of thinking in the Republican party, the Jack Kemp moderates,” said former Bush I White House adviser Jim Pinkerton, who first met Mr. Rove back when they were Reagan Republican activists in 1982. “And the conservative movement today is right-to-lifers and Christians”—a transformation that Rove, of course, helped to bring about in the gay-baiting, terror-fulminating days of Campaign 2004.
Mr. Pinkerton concurs on that point—but notes that the political team Rove captained never managed to rein in the Promethean culture-war forces they cunningly unleashed for crucial marginal electoral advantage. “Rove and the Bush White House really missed their chance, especially on stuff like the immigration bill. The conservative nationalists who rejected the French John Kerry in 2004, they didn’t realize they were voting for open borders and an endless war. They thought they were voting for America first.”
And of course Rove was on the verge of another awkward moment of career enclosure: mounting pressure to testify before congressional panels on his all-too-energetic involvement in the White House’s U.S. attorney scandal. That episode alone “has provided more than the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Charles Tiefer, who served as counsel to the House of Representatives from 1984 to 1995 and now teaches law at the University of Baltimore. “The U.S. attorney scandal has made it impossible for Rove to do what he’s said he wants to do—more policy and less politics. Anyone he meets within any White House agency is not going to be able to think of him as someone who’s primarily an expert on how to make government more efficient and more effective, but rather as someone who sloppily executed a sleazy political maneuver”—i.e., cashiering nine U.S. attorneys on unsupportable grounds and replacing them with political appointees determined to prosecute largely bogus claims of Democratic party voter fraud. Rove “is damaged goods for what was his function,” Mr. Tiefer says. “He can no longer be the channel at which Republican politics gets translated into instructions down into the agencies.”
Mr. Rove is also the target of an ongoing investigation within the White House, with the Office of Special Counsel examining at least 20 separate meetings when he, far from being a neutral bureaucratic policy broker, allegedly briefed agency heads on 2006 election strategy, in seeming defiance of the Hatch Act’s strictures on electioneering on the grounds of the White House. The O.S.C., under its director, Scott Bloch, is also examining the millions of Republican National Committee e-mail communications that went mysteriously missing shortly after the Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed them in connection with its ongoing probe of the U.S. attorneys scandal.
Civilian life must have singular attractions for Karl Rove at this moment. But Mr. Tiefer—who authored the prophetic 2004 book Veering Right: How the Bush Administration Subverts the Law for Conservative Causes—cautions that Mr. Rove’s status as a former White House official won’t necessarily insulate him from the subpoena. “Tomorrow’s paper will say that Rove’s resignation may have created a little damage for the White House, but that he still will have executive privilege”—the protection for both present and former staffers contending that their testimony in a controversial legal matter would abridge their executive branch prerogatives. “But the subject matter of this case is such that it would interfere with a privilege claim. Because this concerns politicizing justice, that’s enough of a scandal so that by historical precedence—you have to testify. And then the privilege claim is a feat—it’s a little like levitation, for the claim to hang there in midair without any apparent connection to the president.”
And if that connection were to re-emerge—in, say, a subsequent lawsuit from the White House seeking to shut down any future testimony from a civilian Karl Rove before Congress—then there would be still more political damage for the White House. “Bush, then, instead of seeming like he was fighting the world like a colossus, would be reduced to going to court to ask for an order to stop Rove’s testimony.”
G.O.P. mainstays in Washington are quite confident that such procedural showdowns are unlikely to make any sort of significant dent in a résumé like Mr. Rove’s. His post-White House career will be but “a permutation of the continued power that he’ll hold,” says Juleanna Glover, former 2000 campaign press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney and policy adviser to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who now works in that former boss’s lobbying shop, Ashcroft Group. “I think he’s now much more freed to do the big-think kind of strategizing. And his departure certainly doesn’t mean there’s not a certain range of campaign who’d be very interested in bringing him on—if for no other reason than that having Karl Rove is very appealing for a certain kind of Republican donor.”
But wouldn’t any of the present contenders for the 2008 nomination—who have so far been reticent indeed in advertising connections to the Bush White House—be taking on a considerable risk in handing the keys off to Mr. Rove, the strategist who all but invented George Bush, politically speaking? “The risk involved in the presidential is that you have people who haven’t done it before,” Glover argues, “even if they have on occasion been possessed of flawed judgment—which I’m not by any means conceding is the case with Karl. Having that type of sheer mileage is invaluable, specifically in times of crisis.”
But one again is struck by how many of the crises now besieging the G.O.P. bear Karl Rove’s thumbprint—and not just in the White House. A recent Pew Research Center study shows that, despite all the pundit cant about a “divided America,” 50 percent of respondents are identifying, or leaning, Democratic, with just 35 percent aligning with the G.O.P. What’s more, the electorate is indicating a growing exasperation with the “values issues” that served as the wedge of first resort in the grand theory of the Rove-engineered G.O.P. majority—especially among younger voters, who are increasingly gay-tolerant, war-weary and suspicious of government-backed religious initiatives.
Meanwhile, in last week’s Republican Iowa straw poll, the runaway victor was Mitt Romney—the first-tier candidate who has most aggressively (if maladroitly) tailored his message to the religious right. The next three top vote-getters were Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, and Tom Tancredo—who among their other distinctions earned early renown in this campaign for refusing to endorse the theory of evolution when Chris Matthews put the question to the G.O.P. field in its maiden debate. In other words, if Mr. Rove does resurrect his consulting career, he’s going to have to figure out a way to effectively re-create much of the political damage he has choreographed in his 14 years of service to George W. Bush.