Karl Rove supreme

Posted: Mar 30, 2006 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON -- Everybody in Washington's Republican political community was well aware that any changes George W. Bush made in his White House staff would not constitute a shake-up. What nobody expected was that Josh Bolten, in essence a professional bureaucrat, would be promoted to chief of staff. Yet, this selection becomes understandable as a confirmation of Karl Rove's supremacy in the White House.

Rove holds the mundane titles of senior adviser to the president and deputy chief of staff, but scarcely anything happens in the Bush administration without his approval. Now he is more influential than ever. Andrew Card, the departing chief of staff, served (as a Cabinet member) under the senior President Bush (as Rove did not). In contrast, Bolten can thank his rise in the second Bush regime to Rove, his nominal subordinate.

I talked to former White House staffers who served Republican presidents over the last quarter of a century. To a man, they were appalled that President Bush had squandered the opportunity handed him when a burned-out Card told him he must resign. It was the time, they agreed, to emulate what President Ronald Reagan did in 1987 when his national approval rating dropped below 40 percent and he brought a new team to the White House: Howard Baker, Kenneth Duberstein, Frank Carlucci and Colin Powell. By not emulating Reagan's boldness, Bush failed to address the unhappy state of his administration and his party.

Throughout his governmental career in Washington and Sacramento, Reagan never was hesitant to drop overboard aides who had become part of the problem. The belief in Republican circles is that Bush is unable to change the guard at the White House because that would tacitly admit something is wrong with the way he governs, and the president cannot do that.

Into his sixth year as president, Bush has preferred to promote from within -- a tendency that has brought third-level aides to the top of White House sections. Although this practice has produced staff mediocrity, nobody questions Bolten's intelligence and competency.

While Card forced himself to work 16- or 17-hour days, Bolten is a natural workaholic who as a bachelor seemed on the job continuously as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He is more attuned to issues than Card and gets along better with Congress, especially Speaker Dennis Hastert. Bolten stayed overtime at this year's House Republican retreat in Cambridge, Md., to chat with members of Congress.

But Bolten replacing Card also advances Rove's project, which was obvious as early as the mid-'90s, of removing the influence of people close to the elder Bush. Rove named Bolten, who then was working for Goldman Sachs in London, as the Austin-based policy director of the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign. There is no question that Bolten is a Rove man.

Bolten's promotion does improve the professional quality of the president's chief of staff, but Republicans fear the worst about his successor at OMB. If Bush follows his usual pattern and promotes from within according to the present pecking order, the new OMB director will be the agency's current deputy, Clay Johnson. A Dallas businessman who was Gov. Bush's aide in Austin and was the administration's personnel director in Washington, Johnson has won few admirers. I found widespread hope but little optimism that he would be overlooked for the OMB post.

A dysfunctional OMB director is the last result the president needs in a White House filled with problems. The absence of a Cabinet secretary coordinating the departments with the president is an inexplicable and unnecessary shortcoming. Lesser staff positions remain unfilled, which may explain the ruinous hours that senior aides are forced to keep.

Prior to Tuesday's surprise announcement of Bolten-for-Card, a Republican parlor game was trying to guess the 21st-century counterparts of Howard Baker & Co. named by Reagan in 1987 to save his presidency. It is not an easy task to come up with good names, but it is highly unlikely that Bush and Rove made such a search. Their implicit message is that no shake-up is needed because they had nothing to do with the parlous condition of the administration and the Republican Party.