Saturday, July 16, 2005

Rove's Troubles Put Bush in Tight Spot

Wall Street Journal

Rove's Troubles Put Bush in Tight Spot

If President's 'Architect' Stays, Second-Term Blueprint Could Be Harder to Realize

Staff Reporter
July 15, 2005; Page A4

Fourteen years ago, it fell to George W. Bush to inform a top White House aide that he had to go. Now, the question is, could he eventually have to do it again?

Then, the aide in question was John Sununu, chief of staff to the current president's father, under fire for his brusque style and questionable use of government-paid transportation.

Today, it is Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, a lightning rod for his brass-knuckled effectiveness and for a discussion with a reporter about a Central Intelligence Agency operative's identity.

What would make a repeat performance even tougher for Mr. Bush is that his reliance on Mr. Rove far exceeds that of his father's on Mr. Sununu. As a result, only extreme political jeopardy is likely to force Mr. Bush to dismiss the longtime adviser he calls "the Architect" of his success.

A decision by prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald to charge Mr. Rove, either with illegally leaking Valerie Plame's name or with perjury over his grand-jury testimony, would force the president's hand. Mr. Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, says Mr. Rove "has done nothing wrong.

"We're confident that he will not become a target after the special prosecutor has reviewed all evidence," the lawyer says. If Mr. Luskin is right, Mr. Bush's calculations would turn on the extent to which Mr. Rove was a distraction from administration goals, and how much the strategist's effectiveness has been damaged.

Some longtime Bush watchers think the outlines of serious damage are clear in the contradiction between Mr. Rove's conversation with Time reporter Matt Cooper about Ms. Plame's employment and earlier White House assurances that he wasn't involved. What is more, Mr. Bush has previously pledged to fire anyone culpable in the leak.

If Mr. Fitzgerald concludes the leak wasn't a crime, "technically this may get him off the hook," says George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M's Bush School of Government and Public Service, named for the current president's father. "But everyone will know that W is playing with the truth if he keeps Rove on the staff."

For Mr. Bush and his party, the furor comes at an especially vulnerable time. Battling predictions of lame-duck status, the second-term president has seen his poll ratings decline amid difficulties in the Iraq war and his drive to overhaul Social Security.

In that environment, sustained media attention to the integrity and discretion of Bush aides on a national-security matter represents an unwelcome distraction at minimum. The longer the probe drags on -- the grand jury is empaneled until October -- the harder it gets for Mr. Bush to accomplish items on his agenda, with the media and Democrats focusing so much attention on Mr. Rove. Last evening in the Senate, they pressed -- unsuccessfully -- for an amendment that would remove security clearances from any federal employee who discloses classified information, including the identity of a covert CIA agent.

In effect, Mr. Rove, who has been largely responsible for Mr. Bush's triumphs, now could become the undoing of Mr. Bush's second-term agenda, unless he can find a way to put the story to rest. "The architect of this historic two-term presidency...may now be the only one that can get the White House out of this political free fall," observes Scott Reed, once Bob Dole's presidential campaign manager.

Others say the story remains an inside-the-Beltway tempest that hasn't broken into the consciousness of average voters -- and isn't likely to. "Most Americans are far more concerned about their summer vacations," says Republican pollster Greg Strimple.

The Republican National Committee has moved aggressively in recent days to cast Mr. Rove's problems as a function of Democratic attacks, hoping that Americans' rising disdain for partisan infighting will cause them to tune out the controversy. Still, the increased visibility Mr. Rove has enjoyed in Mr. Bush's second term makes it harder for the White House to divert the spotlight.
[political peril]

Mr. Rove's elevation to deputy chief of staff after November's election formalized his role in policy as well as politics -- and this made him a higher-profile target. Not bashful on center stage, Mr. Rove in recent weeks charged that liberals sought to offer "therapy and understanding" to terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks, while conservatives prepared for war. Enraged by such jibes, Democrats say they sense in Mr. Rove's troubles a way to magnify public doubts about the administration stemming from the unsubstantiated prewar statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The administration has settled into a strategy of not commenting on questions relating to Mr. Rove or the Plame affair, citing the continuing grand-jury investigation. That has led to brutal probing of White House press secretary Scott McClellan in his daily news briefings, and incessant coverage of the matter in newspapers, on cable TV networks and on the Internet.

So far, congressional Republicans accustomed to taking direction from Mr. Rove have refrained from public complaints about Mr. Rove's situation. But as they cope with their own plummeting poll ratings after months of infighting with Democrats, some have refrained from offering strong defenses of the White House strategist, either.

The political storm presents a very personal test for President Bush. He displays loyalty to friends, just like his father, who endured Mr. Sununu's troubles for weeks before finally cashiering the chief of staff with his son's help.

Unlike his father, the younger Mr. Bush is known for acute political instincts. Those twin characteristics have produced shifting public displays this week.

With Mr. Rove sitting behind him at a White House photo opportunity on Wednesday, the president declined to utter words of support in the middle of what he called "a serious investigation." Yesterday, however, Mr. Bush sent a different, silent signal. With television cameras trained on both men, the president ambled across the White House lawn with his longtime adviser at his side.

Write to John D. McKinnon at