Let’s put the hyperbole around Karl Rove’s departure into perspective. Mr. Rove was a political consultant for the president, nothing more, nothing less.
As a political consultant, he ventured into unfamiliar territory. Unlike most successful campaign consultants, Mr. Rove opted to do something that most savvy ones avoid like the plague: going into the building.
Typically, it’s better for a consultant, financially and otherwise, to stay out of the White House, the governor’s Mansion, or City Hall. It’s also better for government. That way, the consultant can be an outside counterweight to what the people in the building think. When the consultant stays inside for too long, as Mr. Rove did, everyone is hurt, including the man whom he was supposed to help, President Bush.
In an era when technology can help identify voters and get them out on Election Day, Mr. Rove offered one great practical innovation to the GOP. Instead of worrying so much about voters in the middle, Mr. Rove thought he could win elections by making sure that the people who were already inclined to support conservative policies actually voted. The coalition of “compassionate conservatives” Mr. Rove tried to build prior to the 2000 election fizzled amidst an ugly contested election. His efforts to draw large numbers of Hispanic and Arab-American voters into the party failed to bear fruit. In 2002 and 2004, this meant both an especially sharp-edged approach to Democrats and a focus on the most partisan voters. In swing states, such as Nevada, Mr. Rove’s minions concentrated on constructing a “Get Out the Vote” machine that could rival or even surpass Democrats.
Yet while Mr. Rove succeeded in reelecting Mr. Bush in 2004 and maintaining Republican control of the House and Senate, his strategy failed to suit a wartime president. In a jarring case of juxtaposition, Mr. Rove’s electoral tactics ran completely contrary to what a nation at war needs or what his client, a wartime president, required.
A nation facing an external enemy needs domestic comity. And while there’s no question that a very vocal anti-war movement would have emerged however Mr. Bush had sold and executed his foreign policy, it’s also true that Mr. Rove’s approach made things worse, not better. The natural instincts of all political consultants, who think in terms of the next election cycle, are to exploit current events for political advantage, defuse bad news, and delay harsh realities for another day. Mr. Rove demonstrated these traits in the extreme in recent years. In most recent cases, such thinking works to the advantage of elected officials and political candidates. But in the case of Mr. Rove, for President Bush and for the War on Terror, these instincts backfired. It was Mr. Bush’s job not just to animate supporters and others to come out and vote for him in 2004. His presidential obligation also involved preparing American voters for the possibility of a long and difficult struggle not only in Iraq, but also in the other venues, such as Afghanistan.