Karl Rove packing it in? Wishful thinking, I’m afraid

WASHINGTON – Buh-bye, Karl Rove. On your way out of the White House, don’t let the screen door hit you where the dog should have bit you.

I can’t say that I’ll miss George W. Bush’s longtime political strategist – the man Bush used to call “Boy Genius” – because, well, that would be such a lie. And anyway, to quote one of the great country song titles – “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” – I don’t believe for a minute that Rove really intends to withdraw from public life. I predict he’ll be writing op-eds, giving interviews to friendly news outlets and calling Republican presidential candidates to warn them not to abandon Bush, no matter how low his approval ratings slide. Rove’s new job will be to put lipstick on Bush’s hideous legacy – and, in the process, freshen up his own.

Rove’s reputation as the great political thinker of his era took a severe beating last November when, despite his confident predictions of a Republican victory, Democrats took control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

But let’s give the man his due. Karl Rove managed to get George Walker Bush elected president of the United States, not once but twice. OK, you’re right, the first time he needed big assists from Katherine Harris (speaking of lipstick) and the U.S. Supreme Court, but still. Honesty requires the acknowledgement that Rove was very good at what he did.

The problem, of course, is that what Rove did and how he did it were awful for the nation.

Rove announced he was quitting as White House deputy chief of staff in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, saying that while he knew some people would claim he was just trying to elude congressional investigators, “I’m not going to stay or leave based on whether it pleases the mob.” That’s the man, right there in that quote: Benighted fools who don’t blindly trust his honesty or fully appreciate his genius are nothing more than “the mob.”

Rove didn’t invent “wedge” politics, but he was an adept practitioner of that sordid art. When Bush was campaigning in 2000, he proclaimed himself “a uniter, not a divider.” But the Bush-Rove theory of politics and governance has been divide, divide, divide – either you’re “with us” or “against us,” either you’re right or you’re wrong, either you should be embraced or attacked without quarter.

Yes, politics is about winning – they don’t give style points for graceful failure. But the us-or-them brand of politics that Rove mastered and that Bush practiced have been a disaster for the nation and its standing in the world.

Monday, in remarks on the White House lawn, Rove praised Bush for putting the nation “on a war footing” after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But that’s precisely what Bush failed to do. Rather than try to foster a spirit of national solidarity and shared sacrifice, he persisted with tax cuts designed to please his wealthiest supporters. Rather than engage critics of the war in any meaningful dialogue, Bush accused them of wanting to “cut and run.” Rather than actually practice the bipartisanship he disingenuously preached, Bush governed with a hyperpartisan political agenda.

It’s no wonder that Democrats on Capitol Hill, after six years of essentially being told to stuff it, are issuing subpoenas left and right – and also no wonder why the White House is so strenuously resisting them.

One of the things Congress would like to ask Rove is whether the administration’s extreme partisanship extended even to the Department of Justice – whether U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons, and whether Rove was involved in those decisions. Congress would also like to know why Rove and others in the White House political office conducted their business not through the White House e-mail system – which would have opened their communications to scrutiny – but through e-mail accounts at the Republican National Committee, which seems to have misplaced the messages in question.

Rove said he was leaving so he could spend more time with his family – the standard reason in Washington for leaving any job. Bush said Rove will continue to be “a dear friend,” and I don’t doubt for a minute that Rove will continue to be one of the president’s closest and most trusted advisers. I don’t think the Bush administration is going to change course at this late date.

“I’ll be on the road behind you here in a little bit,” Bush said to Rove as the two men faced reporters Monday.

Not soon enough.

Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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