- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

No one should doubt for a moment the political sagacity of Karl Rove, the extraordinary White House political counselor whose fingerprints are all over the strategy that dethroned Trent Lott from his coveted Senate leadership post. Is Machiavellian a proper description of his approach?
Perhaps. But only as far as the "craftiness" part of the dictionary description of that term applies, although some of his enemies would argue that the other characteristics attributed to the Medieval Italian political genius, "duplicitous" and "deceitful," also apply to Mr. Rove. In reality, those two ingredients to one degree or another are present in the DNA of every politician.
What is evident is that President Bush's longtime Texas adviser has a political sensitivity mixed with common sense that is far beyond the average, one that approaches or even eclipses that of legendary Roosevelt political strategist Louis Howe who managed to put together the most unlikely voting coalition in the history of the Republic Eastern liberals, Southern reactionaries, blacks, lily-white unionists to keep his man in office through four elections.
Mr. Rove's instant recognition of the dangers inherent to the Republican Party and, thus, his boss in Mr. Lott's disastrous endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's race-based 1948 presidential campaign probably saved the day. And his awareness of the need to move quickly to disassociate Mr. Bush from the Mississippian's off-the-cuff birthday praise for Mr. Thurmond was evident in the president's early and unexpected strongly worded denouncement of Mr. Lott's comments. From that moment on, Mr. Rove clearly realized that Mr. Lott had committed an unpardonable political sin and could not survive it.
But the balancing act that the White House managed to put on with that goal in mind throughout the tumultuous days that followed was pure brilliance, one that would have left even the most accomplished sleight-of-hand magician overcome with envy. The trick was to give the impression publicly that the administration was neutral in the argument as to whether the Republican leader would remain in his position while working quietly in private to ensure those who might oppose Mr. Lott that the White House would not be adverse to the dethroning.
The Senate is a tight little club, and its members are hypersensitive to heavy-handed outside pressure. Even those from opposing parties rarely say anything against one of the chosen as evident from Democratic Leader Tom Daschle's mild, defensive reaction to the Lott remarks. So Mr. Rove and his strategists realized the emphasis for Mr. Lott's stepping down really had to appear as coming from the embarrassed Republican senators themselves, particularly since Mr. Lott initially failed to see the seriousness of the situation himself and appeared determined to tough it out.
While the White House was stating publicly that Mr. Bush was not encouraging Mr. Lott to quit, the absence of any encouragement for him to stay also was missing and the official silence was devastating. Meanwhile, the message of presidential unhappiness was being delivered in a steady drumbeat to the press by "insiders" and "sources close to the situation" and "informed observers" and other traditional devices for calculated leaks.
Mr. Rove clearly understood another fact of Senate life. Most of its members are possessed with personal ambition that if tweaked just a little will take over. Lyndon Johnson once said that to be successful every president has to realize there are probably 99 members of the Senate who think they can do the job better than he can. The person the White House wanted for the job from the outset of the controversy was presidential pal Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, a "compassionate conservative" who would be unassailable on the issue of race. After all, here was a brilliantly accomplished surgeon who spent his vacations in Africa operating on the needy.
To accomplish this, Mr. Rove and company with the president's blessing collaborated with Sen. George Allen of Virginia, a Lott backer who has his own ambitions but also saw the futility of Mr. Lott's case and what his continued resistance to resigning was doing to a party whose image on civil rights issues, fairly or unfairly, already was tarnished. Mr. Frist agreed to seek the majority leader's job and Mr. Allen informed his friend that it was over.
With Mr. Lott as leader, the president's legislative agenda for the next two years would be in jeopardy and efforts to break even slightly the Democratic Party hold on black American and Hispanic voters would suffer. Positions on such controversial issues as preferential college admission and affirmative action generally would be impossible for the Bush administration.
Having engineered an incredible Republican midterm election victory just a month earlier a feat that brought him praise from even his Democratic counterparts Mr. Rove was not about to let that be severely damaged by an imprudent majority leader. He didn't. Nor would have Machiavelli.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide