Karl Rove told New York conservatives Wednesday night that liberals had a wimpy response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, drawing harsh criticism yesterday from Democrats who demanded that President Bush either rebuke or fire his senior political adviser.
“Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers,” Mr. Rove said at the annual dinner of the New York State Conservative Party.
Mr. Rove also accused Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, of endangering U.S. troops with his comments last week.
“Has there ever been a more revealing moment this year?” Mr. Rove asked, referring to the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat comparing U.S. interrogation techniques at the Guantanamo Bay naval base to the Nazi and Soviet regimes.
“Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called for a retraction, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Mr. Rove “has now decided to move to center stage in the theater of the absurd.”
The six Democratic senators from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut signed a letter to Mr. Rove demanding that he apologize. At a press conference yesterday to announce the letter, the four from New York and New Jersey said Mr. Rove should be fired if he doesn’t apologize by today.
“There’s a certain line that you should not cross, and last night, Karl Rove crossed that line. He didn’t just put his toe over the line; he jumped way over,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.
“This makes me angry. It makes, I think, the American people angry,” said Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey. “The man is divorced from reality, and it’s nothing but pure politics — the politics of diversion, the politics of divisiveness and distortion.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York was asked about the recent Beltway battles over rhetoric, including the Durbin flap and said both parties need to “just take a breath and calm down.”
“Everybody needs to just be a little more restrained,” she said.
Also signing the letter were Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Joe Lieberman and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. The six represent the New York City metropolitan area.
None of the leading Democrats who criticized Mr. Rove yesterday called for Mr. Durbin to apologize for his own remarks, with some even specifically refusing to comment when asked.
Asked yesterday about the different reactions, Democrats would say only that Mr. Durbin’s eventual apology sets the stage for Mr. Rove to do the same.
“Senator Durbin — that’s been done and he has apologized. Karl Rove should do the same,” Mr. Schumer said.
Though the remarks about liberals’ response after September 11 drew the most attention, Mr. Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, offered a series of barbed distinctions between conservatives and liberals.
“Conservatives saw the United States as a great nation involved in a noble cause of self-defense,” Mr. Rove said. “Liberals are concerned about what our enemies think of us, whether every government approves of our actions.”
Republicans appeared to be ready for the complaints, with the Republican National Committee sending out a list of statements that backed up Mr. Rove’s charge, including one from MoveOn.org calling for “moderation and restraint” after the terrorist attacks.
MoveOn.org yesterday said it did, in fact, support going to war in Afghanistan.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman called Democrats’ different reactions to Mr. Durbin and Mr. Rove “outrageous.”
“George Soros, Michael Moore, MoveOn and the hard left were wrong after 9/11, just as it was wrong for Democrat leaders to stand by and remain silent after Dick Durbin made his deplorable comments,” Mr. Mehlman said.
Other Republicans, including some who had criticized Mr. Durbin, defended Mr. Rove, saying he was merely “telling it like it is.”
“I know that the Democratic leadership at this point is offering no ideas and no vision for the American people, but Karl was simply pointing out the different philosophies and different approaches when it comes to winning the war on terrorism,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
Vice President Dick Cheney suggested that Mr. Rove was referring to liberal Democrats who opposed the U.S. war against Afghanistan.
He said Mr. Rove was making a “distinction” between two responses to terrorism.
“One is sort of a crime-solving approach, a law-enforcement approach,” he told CNN. “And the other is a national strategy, military intelligence, wartime approach.”
White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. also defended the remarks, saying they “reflected some of the rhetoric that a lot of people feel.”
“There is a difference of opinion on how some people respond to those kinds of terror attacks,” he said on CNN. “And there has been a long history where some have said our response should be more of an investigative, prosecutorial response than one of taking the fight to the enemy.”
Mr. Rove was not the first White House official to ridicule the notion of offering “therapy” to terrorists. Mr. Bush repeatedly made the point while running for re-election last year, although he did not specifically blame liberals.
“You can’t reason with these people,” the president said of terrorists. “There’s no need to negotiate with them. Therapy’s not going to work.”
Democrats, though, said Mr. Rove’s rhetoric was even at odds with Mr. Bush, who said immediately after the attacks and after Congress approved going to war in Afghanistan that the nation is united.
Of the six Democrats who signed a letter calling for an apology, five of them voted for the war in Afghanistan, and four voted to authorize war in Iraq. Mr. Corzine voted against the war in Iraq, and Mr. Lautenberg was not in the Senate at the time of either vote.
Bill Sammon contributed to this report.