MANCHESTER, NH — Karl Rove was in trouble. Or so it seemed just a few days ago, when the Man Liberals Love to Hate trekked to New Hampshire to address the state’s GOP. According to recent polls, President George W. Bush — whose career Rove masterminded — hasn’t exactly been dazzling the American public in his second term. In turn, Rove may have dropped in the president’s estimation: earlier this year, following the death of Social Security reform and the disastrous federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Rove lost his domestic-policy portfolio in a White House shakeup. Worse, when Rove arrived in the Granite State, he still faced possible indictment for his role in the Valerie Plame case. And if the GOP loses control of the US House or Senate this fall, Rove’s dream of building a permanent Republican majority could be shattered.
IN BLOOM: Are Karl Rove's days as the architect of GOP dominance numbered?
Considering the precarious state of Rove’s career, his appearance at the New Hampshire GOP’s annual dinner was oddly low-key. He was loose and confident, thanks, perhaps, to the news (made public the next morning) that he wouldn’t be charged in connection with the Plame case. Meanwhile, a handful of anti-Rove protesters across the street from the Manchester Radisson — KARL ROVE 666, one sign read — seemed to be going through the motions. Case in point: Susan Bruce held a placard demanding jail time for Rove, but didn’t think it would actually happen. (Good instinct, Susan.) “We have hope,” she said with cheerful resignation. “Hope springs eternal!”
And it was bipartisan, this assumption that Rove wasn’t really in any serious political danger. “Putting him on the political side, I think, was a brilliant strategic move,” said New Hampshire GOP chairman Wayne Semprini, dismissing the notion that Rove’s changed White House responsibilities marked some kind of demotion. “And if there are issues that he needs to address, I’m sure” — cue wry smile — “I’m sure he has plenty of access.”
Not as advertised
Bruce and Semprini are hardly objective observers, of course. Republicans need to believe Rove can rescue the party from its assorted debacles (Iraq, DeLay, Abramoff, Plame) and guide it to victory in November’s midterm elections. And for their part, Democrats may need Rove even more. Ever since he orchestrated Bush’s dubious 2000 win, the man the president dubs “Turd Blossom” has played a key role in the collective Democratic psyche. If Rove’s really the evil political genius he’s made out to be, then losing twice to Bush stings a bit less. Even better, Rove lets Democrats pretend that their party’s recent failures don’t herald a deeper political crisis. Instead, they can conclude that Democrats just need to find a Rove of their own.
But enough political psychologizing. Whatever needs the Myth of Rove satisfies for Republicans and Democrats, it’s very difficult — after hearing his half-hour speech Monday night — to doubt that Turd Blossom will survive his various trials and enjoy the last laugh.
Watching Rove in person for the first time is slightly jarring. If you’ve read enough tributes to Rove’s political savvy, you expect a wonkish, slightly awkward man whose freakishly keen brain — tucked into an oversize bald pate topped with that wispy tuft of hair — is his one great asset.
But that’s not what you get. First off, the aesthetics aren’t quite right: up close, Rove’s seemingly babyish face has an intimidating quality — sharp nose, intense gaze — that photographs never capture. Beyond that, the moment Rove begins to speak it’s clear that his oratorical style is eerily similar to Bush’s. All the constituent parts are the same: the sprinkles of frat-house humor, the doses of angry didacticism — even the hand gestures and taps on the podium.
Who picked up whose mannerisms from whom? It’s impossible to say. But in one key area — the nimbleness with which Rove tackles big ideas — the aide easily exceeds his boss. When the intellectual going gets tough, Bush often looks like a nervous schoolboy shakily reciting a memorized script. But Rove oozes intelligence, which makes the script he delivers all the more compelling.
In that script — which, almost inevitably, will serve as the Republican Party’s mantra as this fall’s midterm elections draw closer — there will be plenty of references to the GOP’s alleged superiority on economic issues, including claims that the Bush administration’s tax cuts saved the country from financial disaster following 9/11. But it’s the “Global War on Terror” (surprise!) that’s going to play a starring role. And it was Rove’s musings on this subject that marked the high point of his speech in Manchester. Some highlights: