Karl Rove's Flawed Vision

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Win McNamee / Getty

President George W. Bush embraces Karl Rove, Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Adviser, after a statement by Rove August 13, 2007, at the White House in Washington, D.C. Bush announced that Rove will be leaving the White House staff on August 31.

Karl Rove is the most famous, and infamous, political strategist in American history. There was a time when his range seemed so vast, his influence over every aspect of the George W. Bush Administration so complete, that Democrats and Republicans alike simply assumed that the hidden hand of Rove was behind everything that happened in American politics — whether good or bad for the President, the Republican Party or the conservative movement. I remember walking alongside him in the Four Seasons hotel in Austin on the night Bush secured the G.O.P. nomination in March 2000. As Rove marched by, a supporter lining the hallway bowed in his presence and, with a hand flourish, declared, "King Karl!"

I remember, too, sitting with Rove at a picnic table in Florida eight months later, on the day before the general election. Bush had been leading most polls in that crucial final week and seemed to be holding his lead despite the late revelation that he had once been arrested for drunk driving and had, as Texas Governor, tried to keep the arrest quiet. If Rove was worried, he didn't show it. In fact, he was convinced that Bush would win at least 320 electoral votes the next day, if not 340. He went state-by-state confidently explaining how this would happen. He was not spinning; he knew TIME wouldn't publish again before election night. He was, simply, wrong. The next day, Al Gore won half a million more votes than Bush.

Rove didn't seem like such a genius then — and even less so after Jim Jeffords quit the Republican Party in mid-2001, thereby swinging control of the Senate back to the Democrats. But then came 9/11, and in the fall of 2002, Rove helped engineer a stunning political triumph when, for only the second time in history, Republicans picked up seats in both the House and the Senate in the first mid-term of a presidency. Two years later, Bush won reelection — and this time, the popular vote — and still more gains for the G.O.P. in Congress, another historic accomplishment. James Carville, another famous political consultant, wrote in TIME that year that Rove's ability to win Bush a second term was "the signature political achievement of my lifetime." Rove was indeed King — oracle to Republicans of all persuasions, feared autocratic malevolence to all Democrats.

Now Rove is leaving Bush and the White House, effective August 31. "Bush's Brain", as Rove was sometimes called (usually by opponents who assumed Bush didn't have one of his own), is heading back to Texas. He was not, according to sources close to Rove and the President, forced out. Like Dan Bartlett, the White House counsel who resigned last month, Rove was one of the handful of people in Bush's inner circle who had carte blanche to decide when, and if, they would leave — although White House chief of staff Josh Bolten had asked everyone on senior staff who didn't plan to stay through the end of Bush's presidency to leave before Labor Day. Rove had several conversations with Bush earlier this year about leaving. He wanted to time his departure just right — not an easy task in a year when the President's job approval rating has been at historic lows. But Rove did manage to exit on a relatively high note — in the wake of Congress' passage of the sweeping new electronic surveillance law that the White House had wanted and most Democrats had opposed.

What often distinguished Rove from other strategists was his sweeping vision. He is encyclopedic in his knowledge of the smallest details of electoral politics — of precincts and turnout models, county activists and regional issues — but he always had a broader idea about where he, and Bush, were going, and where they would take the party. As long ago as 1998, his stated project with Bush was to remake the G.O.P. into a permanent governing majority of the kind the Democratic Party enjoyed from 1932 through 1968. He would do it by winning over Latino voters and breaking the Democrats' grip on seniors and — of course — pounding voters at every turn with the argument that only Republicans could be trusted with America's national security in such perilous times.

His plan was for nothing less than a broad realignment of American politics. But the plan failed terribly after Bush's reelection. Not only has Iraq gone disastrously, dragging down the President's popularity and making even staunch Republicans skittish, but some of the policies Rove was more directly responsible for — the vast expansion of Medicare, the mutation of the G.O.P. into a party of big government, the spectacular failure of Bush's effort to "reform" Social Security through partial privatization — have all weighed heavily on the G.O.P., turning it for the first time since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 into a party in retreat. In the 2006 mid-terms, Rove assured nervous Republicans that they could win again if they maligned their Democratic opponents as soft-headed and weak on terror. And they heeded his advice. But the old strategy didn't work; Democrats swept to power in both houses of Congress. Rove insists — as he does in today's Wall Street Journal to Paul Gigot — that Republicans lost because of corruption and overspending, not because of Bush and the war. But even most Republicans don't seem to believe that.

Now Rove will join the speaking circuit, write a book and probably teach some college classes in Texas. "He always loved to lecture," says a friend and colleague from the White House. Will he get back into the political fray, perhaps by advising the 2008 Republican nominee? "I'm inclined to doubt it," says a source close to Rove. "But with Karl you never know. He loves this stuff. It'll be hard for him to stay away. Politics is in his blood."