The Cult of Karl

So who you gonna believe, Bob Woodward or Ron Suskind? In Bush at War, Woodward's new behind-the-scenes account of the White House in wartime, mighty battles are waged between the Powellites and the Cheneyistas over the fundamentals of foreign policy. Multilateralists duke it out with unilateralists, leaving the president to choose between, or meld, two distinctly opposed viewpoints of America's proper role in the world.

In "Why Are These Men Laughing?", Suskind's January Esquire article on how Karl Rove became master of the universe, readers encounter quite a different White House. Here, on the domestic-policy side of the ledger, there are no policy debates or discussions. There isn't even a domestic-policy operation as such. All there is is politics. All there is is Rove.

Suskind's article also features something virtually unknown in Woodward's world: an identifiable, on-the-record source. John DiIulio, the University of Pennsylvania professor and social-policy maven who ran the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and served as an all-around domestic-policy adviser in the first year of the Bush presidency, provides Suskind with a devastating account of the domestic side of the Bush White House -- all the more devastating because DiIulio is so plainly supportive of the president.

DiIulio is a policy intellectual -- hardly an exotic figure in the history of the West Wing. Bill Clinton had William Galston working on domestic policy; Richard Nixon employed Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his policy shop (developing policies that seem almost Bolshevik by today's more laissez-faire standards). But DiIulio was the one and only policy intellectual on the domestic side of the Bush administration; since he left last February, the administration has not employed another. This is not the result of a supply-side problem (between the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, Cato and Hoover, such figures are a dime a dozen -- less if you weigh the merits of the work many of them produce) but of a conscious choice: that issues of domestic policy matter only as politics. And because that's the case, all policy decisions default to Karl Rove.

DiIulio depicts a White House where, "Everything [is] run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis." On social policy, he continues, "The lack of even basic policy knowledge and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking: discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera." (The fact that DiIulio later delivered a pro forma apology for his remarks doesn't diminish their import.)

One index of the unbearable lightness of domestic policy is the absolute obscurity -- rooted in the absolute impotence -- of the Domestic Policy Council. On the day I got an advance copy of Suskind's piece, I decided I'd check the number of Google citations for Bush's primary policy advisers. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had a hefty 64,600. Economic Policy Adviser Lawrence Lindsey clocked in with 7,800. Domestic Policy Adviser Margaret La Montagne had all of 227. And Rove had 30,700 -- a pretty fair measure of the relative importance of politics to policy on the domestic side of Bushland.

Nowhere is the Rove-ization of policy more glaring than in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The department originated in the Hart-Rudman report of January 2001 and was promoted by hawkish congressional Democrats, but for nine full months the administration opposed it. This June, however, Bush suddenly endorsed it, after West Wing discussions in which the idea received no more than "talking-points-caliber deliberation," says DiIulio. Clearly, Rove saw the bill chiefly as a way to make Democratic candidates vulnerable in November. By demanding provisions -- stripping the new department's employees of existing civil-service protections and union rights -- that the Democrats couldn't accept and then refusing to negotiate on those provisions, the Republicans were able to go after and unseat Democratic Sens. Max Cleland and Jean Carnahan for presumably being opposed to homeland security itself.

Karl Rove may or may not be the political genius for whom the national press has altogether swooned. In the wake of the midterm elections, it's easy to forget his boss' 20-point loss to John McCain in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, or Bush's premature victory lap in the closing week of that year's November election, visiting states that weren't in play while his lead over Al Gore evaporated. And it's easy to forget the vicious campaign of racial and sexual innuendo with which Rove derailed McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary.

The White House is no stranger to political geniuses, after all, and Rove still has a way to go before establishing himself on the level of, say, Clark Clifford, the mastermind of Harry Truman's out-of-nowhere 1948 victory. What's exceptional about Rove's tenure is less his brilliance than the fact that he's the only power center on the domestic side of the Bush administration (imagine, by comparison, Powell, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld rolled into one on the foreign-policy side). And, of course, the fact that the Democrats have developed no counterstrategy to combat Rove.

So is Rove -- as he has long wished to be -- the latter-day Mark Hanna (the brain and muscle behind William McKinley who forged the coalition that made the Republicans the dominant party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries)? Certainly not yet. Indeed, the parallel to be concerned about is less Hanna and Rove than McKinley and Bush. McKinley launched the American empire -- conquering and colonizing Cuba and a chunk of the Caribbean, Hawaii and the Philippines. Bush is the most nakedly imperial president we've had in 100 years. The second coming of Mark Hanna may be cause for concern; the second coming of McKinley is cause for alarm.

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