Karl Rove loomed so large in our politics that no one could see him clearly. He was both underestimated and overestimated, and he leaves the White House with both significant political achievements and frustrated ambitions.
The underestimated Karl Rove was never just a political consultant, but a keen policy mind. In baseball, he'd be called a five-tool player. He talked about Medicare Part B as fluidly and persuasively as he did voting trends in Indiana's 8th Congressional District. He could just as easily have been secretary of health and human services as President Bush's political guru, and in terms of his importance to both governing and politicking, the only figure that comes close to him in recent memory is former Reagan and Bush I official James Baker.
The overestimated Karl Rove saw his critics attribute practically anything they didn't like in American politics to him. For all his talent, he was one man. He didn't orchestrate every development harmful to liberalism throughout the past 6 ½ years, nor did he stomp on puppies and kick children on the way to work every morning. His White House co-workers, almost to a person, say he was an honorable and kind colleague.
While Mr. Rove obviously had a profound influence in the Bush administration, Mr. Bush still would have signed the No Child Left Behind education law, cut taxes, nominated conservative judges, waged the war on terror and invaded Iraq without him. It has been a parlor game during the entire Bush presidency to identify the real driving force in the Bush administration — sometimes it's been Vice President Dick Cheney, sometimes Mr. Rove — when history will show that it was Mr. Bush himself all along.
Bush-haters focused their vitriol on Mr. Rove, and it became all the more venomous for its misdirection. The energy the left devoted to the Valerie Plame flap can't be understood outside of the imperative to "get Rove." All the supposed scandals congressional Democrats are now obsessing over will lose some of their "oomph" as Mr. Rove, their white whale, slips off into the distance under his own power.
For all the investigating, he was never plausibly accused of anything particularly out of bounds, let alone criminal. His besetting sin was winning elections.
Mr. Bush had no business winning the 2000 election, given a popular incumbent of the other party and times that were perceived as peaceful and prosperous. But he eked out a win by brilliantly triangulating between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich as a new kind of conservative. Mr. Rove gets blamed for polarizing American politics, but Mr. Bush had become a hate figure on the left by the end of the Florida voting controversy. After September 11, Republicans won in 2002 and 2004 on national security, which Mr. Rove's critics say he unnecessarily politicized — but, given the importance of the issue and the deep divisions between the parties on it, this was legitimate, indeed unavoidable.
Mr. Rove's wins can never be taken away from him, especially when in 2000 and 2004 he had so little margin for error. It's in his ambition to realign American politics that he fell short. Big government "compassionate conservatism" degraded into the indefensible excesses of the late Republican congressional majority. The vision of an "ownership society" foundered with the failure of Social Security reform. Outreach to Hispanics backfired when it was based on a nonenforcement of immigration laws offensive to law-and-order conservatives.
On top of all this came the crushing charge of incompetence that threatens to overwhelm all else in the Bush legacy. Mr. Rove can't be blamed for that. He didn't run the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and he wasn't in charge of Phase IV post-combat military operations in Iraq. But the issue of competence alone ensures that there will be no Bush Republicans next year. The question for the Republican presidential candidates isn't whether to distance themselves from Mr. Bush, but how far and how soon.
If a Republican wins the presidency in 2008, it will have to be Rove-style — a masterful, but narrow victory won in parlous political circumstances.
Rich Lowry is a nationally syndicated columnist.