Monday, March 28, 2005

With Bush Safely Re-elected, Rove Turns Intensity to Policy

The New York Times
March 28, 2005
With Bush Safely Re-elected, Rove Turns Intensity to Policy

WASHINGTON, March 27 - Jack Kemp was causing problems for President Bush's drive to overhaul Social Security, and it naturally fell to Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's strategist, enforcer and closet policy expert, to take him on.

Mr. Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee and a founder of a conservative advocacy group, was publicly attacking an idea floated by the White House to cut benefits in the retirement system and was rallying support for an alternative approach that, on paper, would be pain free. Mr. Kemp's statements exposed a split among Republicans and complicated the administration's efforts to prepare the public for possible benefit cuts.

After a ceremony several months ago in the White House East Room that Mr. Kemp attended, Mr. Rove sought him out, associates of the two men said. But their exchange was less a scolding by Mr. Rove, they said, than an assertive, detailed argument against Mr. Kemp's favored approach. Mr. Rove, they said, went through a point-by-point critique of the plan and left Mr. Kemp with the message that he considered it unworkable.

As Mr. Bush pushes doggedly ahead with his battle to add investment accounts to Social Security, he is betting heavily on Mr. Rove's well-chronicled political skills to build public support, hold Republicans together and overcome intense Democratic opposition.

But as the confrontation with Mr. Kemp suggests, Mr. Rove is assuming a more expansive role, bringing the same intensity to the big issues in Mr. Bush's second-term agenda that he brought to the president's re-election campaign. In naming Mr. Rove deputy White House chief of staff for policy last month, on top of his continuing catch-all title of senior adviser, the president formally recognized Mr. Rove's affinity for the nitty-gritty of governance and publicly acknowledged his influence over whatever deal might emerge on Social Security, his No. 1 domestic priority.

"All roads lead to Karl," said Kenneth J. Duberstein, a Republican lobbyist who was the White House chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan and is now part of Mr. Rove's vast network of informal advisers and intelligence gatherers.

Under one of his hats, Mr. Rove is running a sophisticated campaign on behalf of the president's Social Security proposals, employing all the components of the national political machine built to re-elect Mr. Bush. Under the other, he is overseeing policy meetings where the administration's senior officials analyze the competing Social Security proposals, bone up on arcane economic concepts and plot how to hit back at the substantive arguments made by people on the other side of the issue.

Other presidents have had powerful advisers with a hand in both politics and policy. The most-cited model in recent times is James A. Baker III, who had a wide-ranging portfolio in the administrations of Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush's father, and went from political operative to treasury secretary, to secretary of state, then back to overseeing a presidential campaign.

But the intensity of Mr. Rove's involvement in politics and policy makes his current status unusual and gives him remarkably broad authority inside the White House and out. And in giving Mr. Rove his new title, Mr. Bush, freed from the need to think about re-election, seemed to acknowledge what everyone in Washington knows: that in this administration, as in all others, politics and policy are inextricably intertwined.

"Karl Rove is the crossing guard at the intersection of policy and politics," said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, who previously observed Mr. Rove for years as an aide to Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and as legislative director of the Christian Coalition.

"He blends political hack and propeller head in a way no one has ever achieved," Mr. Wittmann said. "No one is going to question his political expertise or his policy expertise. The question for him is always one of hubris."

The most concrete change stemming from Mr. Rove's additional title may be that he has moved to a prime piece of real estate on the first floor, down the hall from the Oval Office, from a small office on the second floor of the West Wing. Beyond that, at least as administration officials tell it, nothing fundamental has changed in his power or his role, and his additional title does not portend a more aggressive melding of political and policy concerns. Mr. Rove declined to be quoted for this article.

To outsiders, it is hard to know exactly what to make of Mr. Rove's new role as one of two deputy chiefs of staff (the other, Joe Hagin, is little known outside the White House but is also close to Mr. Bush). After years at Mr. Bush's side - they met in the 1970's and have worked together closely since before Mr. Bush first ran for governor of Texas in 1994 - Mr. Rove does not really need a new title to convey his power, especially after guiding the president to a convincing re-election last year. In retaining his title as senior adviser, he in any case has a job broadly defined enough to weigh in on big decisions whenever he wants.

But on the organization chart, the new post leaves him - or the half of him that is purely policy - beneath Andrew H. Card Jr., the chief of staff and one of only two people in the White House (Vice President Dick Cheney being the other) whose power and reach are in the same league as Mr. Rove's.

"I count on him to keep me well informed and have me get engaged at the right time to help drive policy recommendations to maturity so the president can consider them," Mr. Card said.

Beyond his new bureaucratic chores, like allocating time on Mr. Bush's schedule for policy discussions, helping set the president's travel schedule and keeping track of daily policy developments for Mr. Bush and Mr. Card, Mr. Rove participates in a separate set of meetings devoted to Social Security. Twice a week he sits down to plot legislative strategy, and roughly as often participates in high-level meetings about the substantive issues in play.

The talk runs from what the latest public polls show to the latest proposals being floated in Congress, participants said. From time to time, they said, Charles P. Blahous, the White House economic team's resident expert on Social Security, gets so detailed and arcane in his presentations that only Mr. Rove can follow him.

"He can talk the specifics even with Chuck Blahous," Mr. Card said. "I've never actually seen him correct Chuck, but I have heard him tell Chuck how to explain what he's saying so the rest of us can understand."

But while Mr. Rove's policy acumen has helped him expand his portfolio, his influence is derived in large part from the political apparatus he has built up.

He plays an important role in deciding where Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and other administration officials go as they crisscross the country trying to win public support. He is overseeing an intelligence-gathering effort that closely tracks the positions of every Republican in Congress and makes sure they get phone calls, invitations to the White House, rides on Air Force One or other expressions of support if they come under pressure from the forces battling Mr. Bush over Social Security.

The work done inside the White House is augmented by the Republican National Committee, now run by Ken Mehlman, who managed Mr. Bush's re-election campaign under Mr. Rove. The committee holds a nationwide databank on Bush supporters that Mr. Rove's team amassed during the election, a treasure trove that Republicans said would be used to mobilize public pressure on Congress when Social Security legislation is taken up.

Additionally, Mr. Rove is calling on a handful of outside groups to play a substantial, loosely coordinated role in the effort.

Every Friday the Republican National Committee holds a meeting on Social Security that is often attended by Barry Jackson, Mr. Rove's deputy in his senior adviser role, who handles much of the day-to-day oversight of the Social Security campaign. Also in attendance are representatives of Progress for America, an advocacy group that is running television commercials supporting Mr. Bush's call for individual accounts in Social Security, and Compass, a business-backed group that is running a grass-roots campaign on behalf of the initiative.

Although those groups operate independently of the White House, they have close ties to the administration and to Mr. Rove. Compass's campaign is being run by Terry Nelson, who was one of Mr. Rove's top aides as political director of Mr. Bush's re-election campaign. Compass is an offshoot of the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, which was once run by Mr. Blahous, the Social Security expert. Progress for America recently adopted an advertising strategy used by the Bush campaign, sponsoring traffic reports on radio stations in cities around the country.

Many Democrats say Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove have reached too far on Social Security and are headed for the first big defeat of their partnership. Republicans have yet to settle their own differences; Mr. Kemp, for one, continues to publicly support the approach Mr. Rove objected to, which is embodied in legislation sponsored by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator John E. Sununu of New Hampshire.

And there is grumbling among some Republicans that Mr. Rove has mishandled the Social Security campaign. But Mr. Rove's allies and fans say that he anticipated the difficulties of moving the Social Security debate forward and that he and Mr. Bush remain convinced that they will win in the end.

"Anyone who thinks otherwise," said Charlie Black, a veteran Republican strategist, "they're underestimating Karl and they're underestimating the president."