When Karl Rove relinquished the position of deputy White House chief of staff earlier this year, supposedly in order to concentrate full-time on retaining the Republican majority in this year’s congressional elections, the most prevalent Washington reaction was that the move constituted a demotion. Mr. Rove, at the time, was barely (or perhaps not entirely) out of the woods from the independent counsel investigation into the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, and those who had been clamoring for (or at least eagerly anticipating) his comeuppance couldn’t resist imposing their narrative on this White House personnel move.
As has been amply demonstrated in the weeks since Labor Day, this interpretation was a product of wishful thinking on the part of Democrats and other critics of the administration. Mr. Rove was not on the outs. On the contrary, he was moving (as usual) to the dead center of the White House political operation.
The problem Mr. Rove faced was as follows: The Democratic takeover of the Senate and House (or either) emerged as a distinct possibility (if not yet a likelihood) in 2006. If either eventuality came to pass, the remainder of the Bush administration would necessarily be devoted to defensive action in response to intense congressional oversight scrutiny. The problem the administration faces is, in its way, a product of the seemingly good fortune the administration has had in not facing any majority-opposition scrutiny for six years. If Democrats had had subpoena power and the other powers of the majority all along, likely the administration would have worked out a modus vivendi with Congress by now. Now, everything is on the line because of six years of pent-up Democratic frustration.
The main driver behind the Democrats’ potential strength was President Bush’s poor standing in the polls. That was the Iraq war taking its political toll, plus the bruising Republican intraparty fight over immigration, which dominated 2006 headlines from Capitol Hill, plus such externals as the price of gasoline and (maybe) the end of the real estate boom.
But the problem for Mr. Rove was not chiefly that Mr. Bush had become in general unpopular. It was that Mr. Bush was in danger of losing his claim on the hearts of the Republican Party base. This is not an election in which Mr. Bush needs substantial appeal with voters in the middle, who are not likely to turn out at the polls. It’s an election in which turnout of the party base is crucial. Therefore, it is Mr. Bush’s standing with those voters, whose absence from the polls out of a sense of disappointment with him would be disastrous, that needed addressing.
This, Mr. Bush has done. The main component was the series of speeches he has delivered since Labor Day on terrorism and the Iraq war. Although Democrats were quick to dismiss Mr. Bush’s arguments as fear-mongering, in fact they were resolve-mongering, and the target audience was not people who needed to be scared into perceiving a threat but people who already perceive a threat and need reminding that Mr. Bush is the one who takes it most seriously of all. In certain respects, Democratic complaints about supposed threat inflation played neatly into the key Bush argument that he takes the threat seriously and his opponents don’t.
Next was to queue up a legislative correlative for this argument, which the administration did by demanding detention, interrogation and surveillance legislation from Congress before the election. Politically, Mr. Bush’s position was all but fail-safe: He’d either get what he wanted, with enough Democrats voting no to allow him to illustrate the contrast he was drawing, or somehow the process would gum up to the extent that he could blast his opponents for inaction. His only real exposure was from Sen. John McCain’s competing views, but that would have required Democrats to step up and take a serious stand against the administration’s position in solidarity with Mr. McCain, and they didn’t have the nerve.
The immigration issue didn’t need resolution on Capitol Hill: On the contrary, leaving the issue largely open was to the benefit of Republican candidates, who could accordingly tailor their message in idealized terms rather than support or opposition to an existing measure. There was a big opportunity in the Senate, however, with a vote on the border fence, which commands majority support as a partial measure, and which Democrats hate but once again lacked the nerve to stop.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush caught a break on gas prices; maybe he was due for some luck. And all in all, the White House has delivered something close to the best possible political backdrop for the elections imaginable under the circumstances. Anyone who thinks Mr. Rove wasn’t busy as architect of that set design has missed the point yet again.
Why, it would take something on the order of a Capitol Hill Republican sex scandal involving minors plus a leadership coverup to undo such fine political handiwork. And what are the chances of that?