This is the last of three reports based on the new book “Misunderestimated: The President Battles Terrorism, John Kerry and the Bush Haters” (Regan Books) by Bill Sammon, senior White House correspondent for The Washington Times.
Exactly one week before the midterm elections of 2002, White House political strategist Karl Rove received an urgent phone call from his colleague, political director Ken Mehlman.
“Are you watching TV?” Mr. Mehlman asked incredulously.
“No,” Mr. Rove replied. “Should I be?”
At Mr. Mehlman’s urging, Mr. Rove turned on coverage of the memorial service for Sen. Paul Wellstone, the liberal Minnesota Democrat killed in a plane crash four days earlier. Billed as a somber remembrance, the event instead degenerated into a stridently partisan political rally.
“It’s like watching a slow-moving car wreck,” Mr. Rove said in a lengthy interview with The Washington Times. “And then they reran it on C-SPAN, and I watched it from start to finish again. The whole thing was unseemly.”
The event would have national ramifications in the midterm congressional elections that, according to historical trends, Republicans were supposed to lose by wide margins. But they ended up winning dramatically, thanks to what Mr. Rove called a series of missteps by Democrats that began the previous summer.
Those missteps, which could well be repeated before the presidential election next fall, were rooted in Democratic demands that Mr. Bush “make his case” for war against Iraq. That made it politically acceptable for the president to talk up national security — his strong suit — right before voters went to the polls.
“We were doing exactly what they wanted us to do,” Mr. Rove explained. “The fact of the matter was, we were taking them at their word.”
Indeed, Mr. Bush called the Democrats’ bluff by delivering a major speech on Iraq to the United Nations on Sept. 12.
“I had a twofold purpose going to the United Nations,” Mr. Bush said in one of a series of interviews in the Oval Office. “One was to begin to make the case. But the other was to say to the United Nations: We want you to be effective.”
But there also were political dividends to the president’s focus on Iraq. By asking the United Nations to pass a resolution against Saddam Hussein within “weeks, not months” — and then asking for a similar resolution from Congress — Mr. Bush effectively guaranteed that national security would dominate the headlines through Election Day.
“It’s like playing a very bad gin rummy game where you play the wrong card every time,” said Mr. Rove, who attributed the Democrats’ losing strategy to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. “It’s like he was constantly thinking: What can I feed Bush? What can I discard that would be helpful?
“Every card he played, he played to our advantage,” Mr. Rove recalled. “And we sat there going: Why is he doing this?”
Mr. Daschle’s frustration began to show Sept. 25, when the South Dakota Democrat gave a speech on the Senate floor accusing the White House of politicizing the looming conflict with Iraq. As evidence, he cited a White House computer disk that Democrats said was dropped by an intern who accompanied Mr. Rove and Mr. Mehlman to a presentation across from the White House.
“We find a diskette discovered in Lafayette Park, a computer diskette that was lost,” Mr. Daschle fumed. “Advice was given by Karl Rove, and the quote in the disk was ‘focus on war.’ ”
Mr. Rove disputed Mr. Daschle’s account that Democrats just happened to “find” the disk.
“It’s never become clear to me exactly how they got the disk,” Mr. Rove said in the interview. “I don’t accept the fact that the young lad dropped it into the middle of Lafayette Park. I don’t believe that. I don’t know how they got it.”
In his speech on the Senate floor, Mr. Daschle also criticized White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. for a remark he made to New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller.
“From a marketing point of view,” the former auto executive was quoted as saying, “you don’t introduce new products in August.”
This was widely interpreted as evidence that Mr. Bush was planning to politicize the Iraq issue — a misimpression Mr. Card blamed on Mrs. Bumiller.
“Her quote was accurate, but the context wasn’t exactly,” Mr. Card said in an interview. “I wasn’t talking about the war. It was a collection of things.”
‘Daschle lost it’
In his speech, Mr. Daschle quoted the president complaining that “the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.”
Mr. Bush had referred to the fact that Democrats, bowing to labor unions, did not want him to have hiring and firing authority over employees of the proposed Homeland Security Department. But Mr. Daschle seized on the quote as evidence that the president was politicizing the war.
“Not interested in the security of the American people? You tell Senator Inouye he is not interested in the security of the American people,” Mr. Daschle said, meaning Democrat Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who lost an arm during World War II. “You tell those who fought in Vietnam and in World War II they are not interested in the security of the American people. That is outrageous. Outrageous.”
Mr. Rove observed: “Daschle lost it.”
Emboldened by Mr. Daschle’s attack, a liberal Democratic congressman stood on Iraqi soil four days later and told millions of television viewers that Mr. Bush would lie to the American public to justify war against Saddam.
“I think the president would mislead the American people,” Rep. Jim McDermott said on ABC’s “This Week.”
By contrast, Mr. McDermott insisted that Saddam’s henchmen would be truthful with U.N. weapons inspectors.
“They said they would allow us to go and look anywhere we wanted,” the Washington Democrat said. “I think you have to take the Iraqis on their face value.”
The public was livid over Mr. McDermott’s stunt, which recalled Jane Fonda’s infamous visit to Hanoi. Then-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt came under intense pressure to get his caucus under control.
Sensing an opportunity, the White House quietly opened a direct line of negotiation with the Missouri Democrat over the congressional resolution authorizing war.
“It was a night-and-day difference between Gephardt — who was straightforward and ‘I’m with you’ — and Daschle, who was the nuanced, on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that guy,” Mr. Rove said. “Daschle basically was saying very noncommittal things.”
And so, Mr. Daschle became the only congressional leader not present at a bipartisan show of support for the president in the Rose Garden. His absence was glaringly obvious as Mr. Bush surrounded himself with Democrats and Republicans from both houses of Congress.
Nine days later, even Mr. Daschle came around to the president’s way of thinking. He was among a minority of congressional Democrats who voted yes on the resolution authorizing the president to wage war against Iraq.
“That was a difficult debate,” Mr. Daschle acknowledged in a speech from the Senate floor on Oct. 15. Switching gears, he called on the president to stop stumping for Republicans.
“The White House announced that the president will be hitting the campaign trail for 14 straight days before the November 5th election,” he said. “President Bush should cancel that political trip. He needs to spend less time trying to save the jobs of Republican politicians and more time trying to save the jobs of average Americans.”
But Mr. Bush was not about to heed that advice.
“The president had made a critical decision back in August that he’s just going to basically take all his political chips and toss them onto the table and bet big,” Mr. Rove explained.
‘Let’s be bold’
Mr. Bush was determined not to repeat the failure of his father, whose record popularity as president in the wake of the Persian Gulf war evaporated when it came time for re-election in 1992.
“You’ve got to spend capital to earn capital,” the current president said in an interview. “And if you don’t spend it, it fritters away, it dissipates.”
Still, even some of his closest advisers had second thoughts about betting the farm on the midterms.
“There was some consternation inside the White House,” Mr. Rove acknowledged. “Would the president be looking too political? Would he be putting himself in harm’s way?
“I mean, in most midterm elections, the incumbent tries to stay hidden, because the results are going to turn out to be bad. And the more visible you are, the more you bear the blame for it.
“But the president said: Look, I came here to get something done. It’s easier for me to get something done if we’ve got allies [in Congress]. And we’ve got a chance to affect these races. Let’s be bold, put it out on the table and go.”
As a result, Mr. Bush became the first Republican president in a century to emerge from midterm elections with net gains in both houses of Congress. Despite the efforts of the so-called Bush haters, he padded the Republican edge in the House and regained control of the Senate. (Mr. Daschle became the minority leader and decided against running for president.)
“Joint control of the White House and the Congress means that you have a chance for an extraordinary burst of center-right legislative initiatives,” Mr. Rove said. “Robust tax cuts, Medicare reform, reorientation of the Defense Department — it gives the Republicans a chance to do very big things.
“But it also gives them a chance to constantly be advancing issues that are less visible, but nonetheless critical, like the partial-birth-abortion ban or a science-based environmental policy. I mean, it gives us a chance to at least have a shot at getting these things considered and discussed and moved forward.”
Although Mr. Bush was not on the ballot, he had succeeded in making the midterm contest a referendum on himself. He had nationalized an election that otherwise might have been decided by local politics.
“But ironically, he wouldn’t have been able to do it without the actions of the Democrats, particularly in the Senate,” Mr. Rove said. “The nationalization occurred because they opposed him on judges, they were vociferous in their opposition to tax cuts, and they made demands about Iraq — which he then answered.”
Although Mr. Bush refused to claim credit for those gains in public, he acknowledged in a recent interview that his vigorous stumping indeed had tipped the scales in some races.
“When a president goes into a close election, it pretty much dominates the news,” Mr. Bush said. “And when you go in at a crucial time, it can help a candidate get the news necessary for his or her message to be listened to.”
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