Inside the numbers: Re-election

Posted: Apr 22, 2003 12:00 AM

War is over, which kicks off a new kind of combat: the race for the White House. Given President Bush's current popular success, frustrated Democrats are having to alter their attack strategy with an end around: Instead of only assailing the president, they are also openly lambasting his senior White House adviser, Karl Rove.

In our latest running survey of 1,000 adults, nearly 50 percent of Americans said they would vote for Bush if the election were held today. Unlike other surveys, which pit the president against "a Democratic nominee," this poll allows likely voters the opportunity to select among all of the current candidates. So about 50 percent for Bush, versus only 32 percent for all challengers combined, shows the Democrats need some major gaffes on the part of the president if they are to have a leg to stand on in the fall of 2004.

Such missteps appear unlikely, and Rove is a big reason why. To understand his political heft, let's consider both his most recent critics and his latest strategy. C-SPAN recently featured the co-authors of a new book about Rove, called "Boy Genius." From Austin, Texas, the writers painted a smug and unflattering portrait of the man who steered Bush to victory in 2000. And the show's moderator was hardly moderating. He suggested that Bush has kept only one campaign promise -- to take the country to war!

The show was bordering on the humorous until panelists noted in an authoritative manner that no other president had allowed their chief political strategist or campaign manager to serve an official role in the White House. Not Mike Deaver for Ronald Reagan, or James Carville for Bill Clinton. To support their contention, the panelists even called upon the venerable Liz Carpenter to somehow validate the point. Carpenter blazed an early trail for women in politics when she served as a top aide in the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Who are these people kidding? Have they forgotten that Hamilton Jordan was Jimmy Carter's chief political strategist and then his White House chief of staff? That Jody Powell was a key figure on the campaign before becoming Carter's press secretary? Or that John Kennedy's campaign manager was his brother, Robert Kennedy, who then vaulted to attorney general (and most trusted presidential adviser) during Camelot?

Why is Karl Rove suddenly being singled out? Maybe it's because his detractors and political adversaries know that Rove, even as the Iraqi war was being planned and prosecuted, was quietly soliciting the ideas of respected political and business luminaries in piecing together a Bush economic agenda. That this plan has gained little traction probably has more to do with the Iraqi war than with any shortcomings of the domestic blueprint itself.

Now, with a flattened Saddam Hussein in the rearview mirror, Congress has been debating variations and modifications of the Bush economic plan. And while polling suggests many Americans aren't excited by the president's pocketbook prescriptions, Rove knows this: History shows that taking measures to relieve taxpayers is never anything but a good move.

First, tax cuts are good economics because they usually stimulate growth and spark consumer optimism. Second, they're good politics because even if they ultimately fail to revive the economy, they still provide Bush with a good-faith domestic effort on his election resume.

Make no mistake -- Rove's talents may yet be needed in 2004. Continued economic doldrums could still entice GOP maverick Sen. John McCain of Arizona into a primary challenge to the sitting Republican president. That would mimic the challenge to incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976 by Ronald Reagan. Reagan fared better than most anticipated, and it set up his own ascendancy to the White House in 1980. Even without this nightmare scenario, there's always the possibility that circumstances could suddenly see Bush up against a surprisingly strong Democratic opponent.

There is little doubt the long election season is underway. Not when books start appearing that undermine the credibility of successful campaign operatives. Or when supposedly knowledgeable political pundits start revising electoral and presidential history to fit their current views.

Like him or not, Karl Rove -- in the storied tradition of Bobby Kennedy and Hamilton Jordan -- is good not only for the president he serves, but for the policies being put forth for consumption by the body politic.

Let those Texas bookworms gnaw on that.