Even Bush's first-term gems tarnished rapidly. While much of the criticism was disingenuous, few can doubt the White House regrets that "mission accomplished" stunt. The Medicare prescription drug benefit may be surprisingly popular, but the promised political windfall never materialized. Meanwhile, Bush's two most important domestic accomplishments in the second term have been the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. But even these masterstrokes ran at least partly against the first instincts of Bush and Rove. If they'd had their druthers, Miers and Alberto Gonzales would be on the court today - a calamity from which neither the republic nor the Republican Party would soon have recovered.
There's a lesson for conservatives: Rove engineered Bush's 2000 victory by having Bush promise to be a "compassionate conservative." That meant generally staying mute on racial issues, luring Latinos into the GOP fold by any means necessary and advocating federal activism on everything from single motherhood to education. The story is complex, of course. Bush won tax cuts and was stronger on defense than Gore or Kerry would have been. But the central point remains: Rove's strategic vision involved securing a Republican victory at the expense of conservative principles.
Partisan victories are nice, but they aren't an end in themselves. Harry Truman, whom Rove and others see as a role model for Bush, liked to quote Napoleon on his fateful encounter with the Russians: "I beat them in every battle, but it does not get me anywhere."
Compassionate conservatism succeeded as a political tactic by co-opting liberal assumptions in much the same way that Bill Clinton's triangulation stole conservative thunder. Rove was, famously, the architect of this strategy, and as such the left hated him not for his ideas but for his successes, which they now want to emulate at all costs. The net-root "fighting Dems" who care about partisan victory above all else are in many respects the children of Karl Rove.
"What is history," Napoleon asked, "but a fable agreed upon?" After he pens his memoirs from his Texan Elba, maybe we'll find out what fable Rove subscribes to: the one in which he was a champion for conservatism, or the one in which he liberated the GOP from conservatism.