No presidential aide in the modern era has had as wide-ranging a portfolio as Karl Rove. He was the president’s top political adviser, as well as his top domestic policymaker. Some of the opprobrium he has received from the Left is the result of just this combination: Imagine what conservatives would have said if James Carville had moved into the Clinton White House in 1993 and run a lot of the show.
When Bush took office, conservatives were not sure what to think of Rove. More often than not, however, conservatives have ended up allied with Rove in intra-Republican debates. The leading Republican strategists of the 1990s accepted a liberal hegemony and moved cautiously within it. (Witness the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, in which Republican candidates acted as though gun owners and religious conservatives were liabilities.) Rove did not shy from a fight, and started a few.
Rove’s critics call his boldness divisive. In particular, he is said to have politicized national security. The truth is that national security is the subject of important differences between the parties and that the parties have every right to appeal to the public to settle them. It is no more divisive for Republicans to run on homeland security than for Democrats to run against Abu Ghraib. Rove was no more divisive in 2002 and 2004 than Democrats were in 2006; he just won the first two times, which was his real offense.
Obviously, Rove did not achieve his stated desire to bring about a Republican realignment. But he did play a major part in winning two presidential elections that could easily have gone the other way. In 2000, the country was enjoying what it took to be peace and prosperity, even though an attack and a recession were just around the corner. Al Gore was a credible candidate who ran a serious campaign. The Bush campaign, for all of Rove’s supposed instinct for division, initially tried to run an above-the-fray, post-ideological campaign. In September and October, however, Bush rallied conservatives — and pulled off an upset.
Rove’s role in 2004 defies the caricature as well. He supposedly cared only about his base: Yet Bush increased his margin among many groups who were not part of the base, from union households to Hispanics to Jews.
We have had serious differences with Rove, both tactical (we thought, for example, that Social Security reform should have been handled differently) and strategic (we thought he was dead wrong on immigration). But it is hard to imagine anyone else who could have done better by conservatives in his post.
It would be an understatement to say that the Bush White House is diminished without him. His impending departure underscores that this administration is, for most intents, over. A new generation of conservatives will now have to learn from Rove’s record, both its errors and its triumphs.