Monday, April 24, 2006

The White House shakeup story last week generated an astounding amount of dubious political analysis. In fact, since so much of the misunderstanding seems to center on the role of Karl Rove going forward, with most of the commentary bent on painting the move as a demotion for him, I am tempted to think that the whole thing was an especially wily Rove plot.

Mr. Rove gives up his formal responsibilities for domestic policy in favor of concentrating his attention on the upcoming congressional elections. More evidence of the bankruptcy of the Bush domestic agenda, huffs the opposition. The subtext here, which has been a recurring theme of Democrats when they let their loathing of President Bush get in the way of their political intelligence, is that the Bush administration is over.

Essentially paralyzed by its own inadequacies, the argument goes, from disaster in Iraq to its misplaced and now rejected domestic policy priorities such as private Social Security accounts, the administration is out of ideas and out of gas. The people have rendered their judgment in the form of Mr. Bush’s cratering approval ratings. His fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill have cut and run, not that that will do anything to save them from a reckoning for their own misplaced priorities and the corruption of their cronies.

Now, in truth, the 12-month period beginning summer 2005 is shaping up as the worst political year for a presidential administration since Bill Clinton’s beginning in summer 1993. But in a way, that is contributing to the problem Democrats are having understanding the moment. Because, of course, Democrats lost control of both chambers of Congress at the end of that annus horribilis. They have therefore concluded that it is fitting and proper for Republicans to lose control of Congress at the end of Mr. Bush’s bad year.

Republicans overreached in 1995, giving Mr. Clinton an opportunity to stage a comeback (though not one that would regain his party Congress). At one point, he famously declared at a news conference that he, as president of the United States, was still “relevant”; Republicans saw this as a sign of desperation from an irrelevant man. They were wrong. Mr. Bush recently pronounced himself “the decider” of such questions as who will be secretary of defense. Democrats were likewise inclined to interpret his awkward defensiveness as a sign of desperation.

In so doing, they risk missing the point that Mr. Bush is, indeed, “the decider” of many things, just as Mr. Clinton remained, in fact, “relevant.” There really is something about being elected president of the United States, four-year-term and all, that constitutes immunity from irrelevance. The “lame duck” phenomenon does not negate the fact (and is being prematurely applied to Mr. Bush in any case; his problems have other sources).

But there’s an even bigger problem here. True, congressional Republicans are defensive and desperately worried about losing control. At some level, many of them think they deserve to lose. Some go so far as to think it would be good for them in the long run. In any case, they have good reason to believe that if they do go down, Democrats will not exactly be magnanimous in victory. It does not go too far to say that some Republicans have adopted the mindset that they have already lost. And some Democrats seem to have taken to the view that they have already won.

But they haven’t. And that’s where Mr. Rove comes in. He is Mr. Bush’s top political strategist, and the confidence Mr. Bush has in him shows no sign of having abated in the slightest. Moreover, Mr. Bush’s judgment in this case is not eccentric: Democrats would certainly prefer to caricature Mr. Rove as a bumbling incompetent, but they know no one would buy it, least of all themselves: Mr. Rove has inflicted way too much pain on them. Instead, the caricature they stick to is Mr. Rove as evil genius and puppet master.

Mr. Rove’s shift is simply an indication that between now and November, the White House’s top political priority is the retention of the Republican congressional majority. If Mr. Bush is serious, and there is no reason to think otherwise, Mr. Rove will likely have considerable resources at his disposal. No, Mr. Bush is not popular, but it is fanciful to think either that he is uniformly unpopular or that his popularity among his die-hard supporters, those of the sort who can still muster an encouraging word for him to pollsters, is somehow meaningless. Where he remains strong, he is a huge asset for any Republican; and perhaps the key question of the election will be whether those hardcore supporters are motivated to turn out and vote Republican in November.

Mr. Bush, as the decider, didn’t have to make this play. Certainly Mr. Clinton never did anything comparable; he saw the excesses of Republicans in Congress as something that could work to his political advantage. Mr. Bush’s staff shakeup is, first and foremost, a shift into campaign mode, because, pssst, the election isn’t over.

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