- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

When it comes to setting priorities for President Bush's new-year domestic agenda, White House political adviser Karl Rove argues for a politically risky path: revive Mr. Bush's plan for riding some Social Security funds on the volatile stock market.
There could hardly be a trickier time for putting the cherished entitlement program within reach of the market. But Mr. Rove is proving more of a risk-taker than his reputation has suggested until now.
Painted by critics as the White House's all-powerful, all-politics, win-at-all-costs animal, Mr. Rove shows at a closer look more mastery of policy, more willingness to make waves on politically sensitive matters and less command over Mr. Bush's decisions than conventional wisdom holds.
At 51, Mr. Rove shows little care about his own personal style (no designer suits, expensive coif or cufflinks for him), but he fiercely guards his professional image. Suggesting a thin skin unusual in hardball politicos, Mr. Rove has been known to take a fine-toothed comb to news articles about him and harangue their writers about the smallest critical details.
Rep. Saxby Chambliss, hand-picked by Mr. Rove for an underdog campaign unseating Georgia's Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, said he was surprised by Mr. Rove's counsel to be provocative.
After Mr. Chambliss caused a furor with a post-September 11 joke about arresting Muslims who come across the state line, Mr. Rove soothed the contrite candidate with this advice: "If you don't have bumps in the road, you're not being aggressive enough."
The president has dubbed Mr. Rove, an intimate from Mr. Bush's early days in Texas politics, his "political guru." And two Texas authors at work on books about Mr. Rove fought over the title "Bush's Brain," with one eventually settling for "Boy Genius" instead.
He is so enamored of policy that his wonkish way with conversation is reminiscent of former President Bill Clinton. Mr. Rove can tick off on his fingers the sponsors of every House and Senate bill to overhaul Social Security, and what percentage of Social Security taxes each would divert to individual retirement accounts.
Mr. Rove effectively ordered the idea of Social Security's partial privatization shelved as Republicans campaigned for control of Congress this past year.
Now he wants to dust it off. According to advisers privy to the internal debate, Mr. Rove wants to gamble Mr. Bush's post-election political capital now, when it is strongest, believing that by the time Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign rolls around, the appeal to younger workers will outweigh any "fear mongering" Democrats can do among senior citizens.
Whether he's arguing for calculated caution or a gamble, Mr. Rove's fingerprints are everywhere in the West Wing and on the campaign trail.
He's in all domestic policy meetings, he controls which interest groups get invited to White House events, and he dictated not only Mr. Bush's aggressive campaign itinerary but also the Republican Party's winning campaign focus on war and homeland security.
With success has come fresh scrutiny not only by Democrats smarting from defeat, but also from a one-time insider.
John DiIulio, former director of Mr. Bush's office of faith-based initiatives, told Esquire magazine Mr. Rove leads a band of "Mayberry Machiavellis" in the White House policy simpletons who don't know Medicare from Medicaid and don't care about anything but politics. (Mr. DiIulio has since said his comments were a mistake.)
The summer departure of presidential counselor Karen Hughes left White House observers speculating that Mr. Rove would exercise unchecked power in the West Wing. But co-workers insist he has no veto power, is just one person on the committees that recommend policy, and operates under Chief of Staff Andrew Card's need-to-know rule like everyone else.
For example, Mr. Card and others were at work on Mr. Bush's massive government-reorganization plan for several months before Mr. Rove was informed.

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