Karl Rove loomed so large in our politics that no one could see him clearly. He was both underestimated and overestimated, and he leaves the White House with both significant political achievements and frustrated ambitions.
The underestimated Rove was never just a political consultant, but a keen policy mind. In baseball, he'd be called a five-tool player. He talked about Medicare Part B as fluidly and persuasively as he did voting trends in Indiana's 8th Congressional District. He could just as easily have been secretary of health and human services as Bush's political guru, and in terms of his importance to both governing and politicking, the only figure that comes close to him in recent memory is former Reagan and Bush I official James Baker.
The overestimated Rove saw his critics attribute practically anything they didn't like in American politics to him. For all his talent, he was one man. He didn't orchestrate every development harmful to liberalism throughout the past 6 1/2 years, nor did he stomp on puppies and kick children on the way to work every morning. His White House co-workers, almost to a person, say he was an honorable and kind colleague.
While Rove obviously had a profound influence in the Bush administration, Bush still would have signed the No Child Left Behind education law, cut taxes, nominated conservative judges, waged the war on terror and invaded Iraq without him. It has been a parlor game during the entire Bush presidency to identify the real driving force in the Bush administration -- sometimes it's been Vice President Dick Cheney, sometimes Rove -- when history will show that it was Bush himself all along.
For all the investigating, he was never plausibly accused of anything particularly out of bounds, let alone criminal. His besetting sin was winning elections.
Bush had no business winning the 2000 election, given a popular incumbent of the other party and times that were perceived as peaceful and prosperous. But he eked out a win by brilliantly triangulating between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich as a new kind of conservative. Rove gets blamed for polarizing American politics, but Bush had become a hate figure on the left by the end of the Florida voting controversy. After Sept. 11, Republicans won in 2002 and 2004 on national security, which Rove's critics say he unnecessarily politicized -- but, given the importance of the issue and the deep divisions between the parties on it, this was legitimate, indeed unavoidable.
On top of all this came the crushing charge of incompetence that threatens to overwhelm all else in the Bush legacy. Rove can't be blamed for that. He didn't run the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and he wasn't in charge of Phase IV post-combat military operations in Iraq. But the issue of competence alone ensures that there will be no Bush Republicans next year. The question for the GOP presidential candidates isn't whether to distance themselves from Bush, but how far and how soon.
If a Republican wins the presidency in 2008, it will have to be Rove-style -- a masterful, but narrow victory won in parlous political circumstances.