Sunday, August 19, 2007

Spurning Criticism, Rove Puts Blame on Democrats

The New York Times
Spurning Criticism, Rove Puts Blame on Democrats

WACO, Tex., Aug. 18 — During the last eight years, Karl Rove has been lionized and vilified, heralded as making the unlikely election victories of President Bush possible and impugned as reaching too high from an unusually powerful White House perch.

In the eyes of his many detractors, he has helped to send the Bush presidency off track in the process.

But in an interview at an IHOP restaurant here, days after he announced his resignation as Mr. Bush’s top political adviser, Mr. Rove defiantly dismissed the rash of fresh critiques that have come his way in the last several days, blaming the Democrats for the divisive tone that has dominated Mr. Bush’s tenure and for which he has frequently taken the blame.

He said he had no regrets over what some even some allies have called his greatest missteps, like his trying and failing to pass a sweeping overhaul of the Social Security system at the start of Mr. Bush’s second term, and the degree to which he seemed to meld partisan politics and official White House policy in his dual duties as a deputy chief of staff and Mr. Bush’s top political strategist.

He strenuously argued with the dominant characterization of him as the Oz — or, with Vice President Dick Cheney, the co-Oz — behind the curtain of Mr. Bush’s White House and presidency, declaring, “I’m the facilitator,” who has merely helped Mr. Bush as he has sought to shape his own views.

Mr. Rove at the same time described himself as an aggressive and studious inside player at the White House who is still one of the four or five officials forming Mr. Bush’s tight-knit, inner circle, but has had to work hard for the position. He dismissed what he called “the idea that I am somehow this all-powerful figure inside the White House.”

“What I’ve learned is that if I want my voice to be heard around the table,” Mr. Rove said, “it can’t simply be, ‘Well, he’s the long-term associate of Bush from Texas’ — I’ve got to dig in.”

And even as he prepares to leave his job, Mr. Rove showed that he is still very much the political maestro trying to corral his party, taking a call from Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, the general chairman of the Republican National Committee, while waiting for a table. He noted afterward that Mr. Martinez had recently been quoted criticizing fellow Republicans on immigration — questioning the approaches of the Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Mr. Rove said he reminded Mr. Martinez that the blame should be focused on a Democrat, namely Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, for what Mr. Rove characterized as failing to shepherd a comprehensive immigration plan the president supported. (Mr. Reid has placed the blame on the White House, saying it failed to forge the political consensus needed to pass the plan.)

There was one stark sign that Mr. Rove was truly leaving. He expressed what no White House aide would express publicly, though many very senior officials have shared the sentiment privately: that is, distaste for the president’s beloved Scottish terrier, Barney, who is seen by some as aloof and entitled. “Barney’s a lump,” he joked. Mr. Rove granted the interview as part of a farewell media tour as his detractors — including many Democrats but also some conservatives — stepped forward to dispute his legacy.

He was alternately emotional and nostalgic, clinical and unbowed, but rarely introspective, saying, “There will be time for regrets; there will be things that I didn’t do as well as I should have, there will be things that I’ve left undone.”

He only described one regret in particular: “I remember having a conversation with a colleague — I want to say not only a colleague, but a very close friend — and responding out of frustration at the end of a seemingly long, continuing dialogue that turned into an argument, and saying something unkind, and it was the worst I ever felt at the White House. I later apologized to him for it.”

Asked why some of his former colleagues, specifically his former deputy Matthew Dowd, have left Mr. Bush’s inner circle in bitterness, Mr. Rove said sadly, “I don’t know.”

In an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, Mr. Dowd, who is no longer on speaking terms with Mr. Rove, had lamented that Mr. Bush’s White House had not followed the style of Mr. Bush’s Texas statehouse in reaching out to Democrats. And Democrats are currently investigating whether Mr. Rove inappropriately pushed for the dismissal last year of several United States attorneys for political purposes. (“Everything was handled appropriately,” Mr. Rove said.)

“The dividers, over the last six years,” he said, “have been the Democrats, who have routinely said he was not elected, he’s illegitimate, he’s a liar, he deliberately misled the country.”

Mr. Rove was asked whether harsh Republican attacks on the national security credentials of various Democrats in 2002, orchestrated by him, had added to the climate. Among the advertisements that year was one from the Georgia Senate race in which the Republican, Saxby Chambliss, called the Democratic incumbent, Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran soft on defense and flashed the menacing image of Osama Bin Laden.

“President Bush and the White House don’t write the ads for Senate candidates,” Mr. Rove said, calling himself “a convenient scapegoat,” and blaming Democrats for their losses.

Democrats and even some Republicans have criticized Mr. Rove this week for what they have described as a single-minded pursuit of his goal of a “durable” Republican majority, with policies aimed at stealing away traditional Democratic constituencies like Latinos or weakening Democratic power bases like unions.

Voicing indignation at such critiques, he said, “With all due respect, don’t you think they would like to have a durable Democratic majority and put us as an un-durable minority?”

He said, however, that he was pursuing the president’s policy wishes and not his own grand political aims; he described a process whereby Mr. Bush laid out his policy goals early on, and Mr. Rove helped flesh them out by putting him together with top intellectuals.

Members of both parties believe Mr. Rove miscalculated in pursuing the privatization of Social Security, when Mr. Bush was at a high point in the polls following his reelection but when there was little political will to get it done — a failure that some believe badly hurt the president’s standing.

Mr. Rove said that Mr. Bush had been committed to it for so long he had to pursue it, and he had succeeded in putting it on the national agenda for the future.

As Mr. Rove left the IHOP for his hotel here in Waco — some 20 miles from the president’s vacation ranch — it was evident the degree to which he had become a public figure. He was twice stopped by well-wishers who said they admired him.

Later, Mr. Rove sent a note: “I didn’t plant the guy at the IHOP or the woman at the hotel but it would be the subtle personal touch that the Evil Genius would do to throw you off the scent, don’t you think?”