Thursday, April 20, 2006

Rove's Harlots and Rose Garden Shadows

I discuss with myself questions of politics, love, taste, or philosophy. I let my mind rove wantonly, give it free rein to follow any idea, wise or mad that may present itself . . . My ideas are my harlots.
– Denis Diderot, Preamble to Rameau's Nephew, 1821
Something finally happened in the great Bush White House shakeup that appeared destined never to be. Donald Rumsfeld seems firmly ensconced at Defense. Rob Portman's transfer from U.S. Trade Representative to Budget Director moves a long-time loyalist closer to the President's bosom. Scott McClellan's resignation as Press Secretary was just another Bush front man burned out by the strain of trying to defend his boss and feed the message of the day, at the exclusion of all else, to an omnivorously voracious White House Press Corps.

But the announcement that Karl Rove will be relinquishing duties related to oversight of policy development to focus more on politics truly is big news, if only because it finally cuts deeply into the core of the Bush Administration dense insularity.

Pundits seem divided about the true impact of this move. The New York Times dismisses it as almost contemptuously refusing to do enough. Their editorial this morning begins, "President Bush wants to show the nation he's shaking things up in his Administration but it is clear that the people who messed everything up will remain in place." On the other hand, the Washington Post sees it as yet another characteristic of a weakened Administration that has "shifted to survival mode."

There are only two reasons I can see for Rove's diminishment of duties. One would be the pressure of criticism for the truly ineffective job he did driving domestic policy in 2005, such as the debacle of Social Security reform. Second would be the necessity of allowing him to focus his attentions on his true area of competence – political strategy, particularly in light of looming November midterm elections. Either represents an admission of weakness for the Bush Administration and the bleak reality they now face as compared to the heady days immediately following the President's re-election.

Yet the latter suggests that too much of a good thing can be bad for a Democratic opposition that has benefited mostly from public dissatisfaction over the status quo rather than its attraction to their alternate ideas. Rove, being Rove, could have been expected to immerse himself in political strategy even if he had kept his policy duties. But then he would have continued to be pulled between the two and his effectiveness at both thus weakened.

Now he is free to target Democratic candidates with his usual laser-targeted precision and WMD-like ruthlessness. And make no mistake. Long before Rove's goal was to remake U.S. domestic policy in the mold of neoconservative ideal, he was charged with and seemed to have succeeded in creating an enduring Republican majority in Washington. What is more, Rove will be doubly motivated to save his boss from falling into instantaneous lame duck status.

That is not good news for Democrats, despite any momentum Rove's seeming demotion might provide them in the short-run. Rove giving them his undivided attention is always unwelcome but is particularly hurtful in light of the fact that the Democratic Party has done only an adequate job at best at fielding credible candidates for House and Senate seats currently held by Republicans and considered at risk.

The Rothenberg Political Report breaks down Democratic challengers taking on Republican-controlled seats into three tiers. The first tier are strong campaigners in their own right with a very good chance of upsetting the incumbent. The second tier are competent campaigners who are getting a boost from public discontent with the Republican majority. The third tier are inept campaigners who will have to reply solely on a desire for change by the voting public to have any chance. A mere eight individuals fall into the first tier.

For example, an April 10 special election to fill the seat of former Republican Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California was won by a Democrat but with only forty-four percent of the vote, forcing a June runoff. Even in predominantly blue states and even in districts where Republicans are at their weakest, Democrats can face an uphill battle to pick up seats.

This means that far from having to concentrate on all two hundred and forty-six Republican seats up for re-election in November, a newly rededicated Rove will only have to focus on eight to twelve at most. And, of course, Republicans have used the past decade to gerrymander the number of at risk seats to the lowest number possible to begin with.

Republicans may be backing themselves into a corner over issues like the Iraq War and corruption scandals. Yet Democrats would do well to remember that an animal is never more dangerous than when it knows itself to be cornered. The GOP just let loose its most dangerous political animal and it is safe to assume that it emerges from the corner with its claws drawn and fangs bared. Even the brightest and best the Democrats have to offer will do well if they emerge alive – let alone unscathed – once set upon by Rove's harlots.

Nor is it safe to assume that Rove has at least completely removed himself from the inner circle of White House policy making. He will still be an "important voice on policy" and will provide "big-picture strategic planning," White House officials told reporters yesterday. Moreover, it is important to remember that new White House Chief of Staff John Bolton cut his milk teeth in policy under Rove and that the two forged an effective relationship of mutual respect during Bush's first term.

This leads me to conclude, with apologies to Yeats –

Let the new faces play what tricks they will
In the [West Wing] rooms; night can outbalance day,
Our shadows rove the [Rose] Garden gravel still,
The living seem more shadowy than they.
– W. B. Yeats, "The New Faces",The Tower, 1928
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