For weeks, the city's permanent class has speculated about whether Patrick Fitzgerald would indict Karl Rove. If he does, then Rove will resign as Scooter Libby did. But as each day passes with no action from the special prosecutor, Rove is looking safer and safer. So, the lunchtime conversation has shifted. The question now is: What should President Bush do if his top political adviser is not indicted? Fifty-nine percent of Americans think Rove should resign from the White House. (The most amazing aspect of this: that 59 percent of Americans know who Rove is.) Only 36 percent of Americans "now believe that Bush has lived up to his campaign pledge to restore integrity to the White House."
So, will Bush fire Rove to try to improve public perceptions about his administration? Or will he continue to rely on Rove's advice and ignore his critics?
Administration officials who work intimately with Rove are making their own guesses. "It's never been clear how long Karl would stay," said one White House aide last week in an offhanded attempt to make it seem like Rove was mulling a 2005 departure long before things got so sticky. Others talk about how he really misses Texas. Another top aide joked that security guards will be dragging a BlackBerrying Rove out of the White House gates on Inauguration Day 2009. The gossip is high, but the truth is, no one knows what's going to happen. "We just assumed he'd be indicted because you all were writing it," admitted one senior administration official.
President Bush—the only person who will decide Rove's future—seems to be holding off until Fitzgerald makes up his mind. But just because he's waiting doesn't mean we should. Here are five reasons Bush should keep Rove if he's not indicted:
1. You'll only encourage us. The nay-saying Washington establishment can never get enough. If Bush fires Rove, the journalists and wise men who have been calling for his head won't be satisfied. They'll be emboldened. There will be calls for more acts of dubious self-flagellation: a broader staff shakeup, a public session of mistake-admitting by Bush, a timetable for troop withdrawals from Iraq, and perhaps even makeup sessions with the French. "They'll bank it and then want more," says a senior administration official of those who want a Rove firing.
2. The tumult will pass. The limbo period after the Libby indictment has contributed to the ethical stink surrounding the White House. The press asks the president or his spokesman about Rove every day, and the White House can only stonewall. That drives the president's poll numbers down. But once Fitzgerald closes shop without another indictment, the scandal will start to fade away. Sure, Rove's continued employment will be measured against Bush's previous righteous statements on government ethics. Clintonites will be rightfully smug. Democrats won't let the Rove case go, but they were going to attack him whether Bush fired him or not. If the nonpartisans in the country ever cared about Rove at all, most will go back to caring about the war in Iraq and gas and home-heating-oil prices. Those aren't issues that work well for Bush, but they're also ones that won't be improved by a Rove firing.
3. Bush needs him. Legislation doesn't pass itself. Rove is in charge of plotting strategy and policy on Bush's guest-worker program, a key element of his second-term agenda. He is also central to planning the State of the Union and the 2006 policy initiatives that will be launched there. If Bush is going to "hit the reset button"—the cliché White House officials now use to explain the effort to get past Katrina, Libby's indictment, and the Miers cul-de-sac—he needs Karl to help implement whatever plan they concoct.
The 2006 elections are looking ever gloomier for Republicans as voters tell pollsters that they prefer the Democratic Party. All of Rove's talents will be needed to support Republican candidates. Democrats are going to turn every local election into a referendum on Bush's performance. GOP candidates who try to distance themselves will find the president hard to shake. Since Bush will be dragged into the election anyway, he might as well take control of his destiny. Even if swing voters don't like Bush anymore, Rove knows where and how to use the president to inspire the Republican base that will be so important to the off-year election. If Bush can beat expectations, he has a chance to resuscitate his political standing. That's also something Karl is good at: managing expectations. Even a middling performance by GOP candidates will be spun as a triumph.
4. The base loves Karl. Karl Rove is a GOP folk hero. Conservatives have never winced at the accusation that Rove was leaking to smear Joe Wilson. Partly this is because they despise Wilson so much. Partly it's that they revere Rove. If Rove is not indicted and Bush gets rid of him anyway, conservatives will likely view it as a capitulation to the liberal media. Yes, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., has suggested Rove should go no matter what Fitzgerald decides. He's no member of the liberal elite, but the former majority leader is enjoying whatever the Mississippi term for schadenfreude is and may not be representative of any widespread GOP sentiment. (Lott believes Karl helped push him out of his leadership post after Lott's public praise of former segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond became a national controversy. He is repaying the kindness.) The professional members of the GOP in Washington, who have been telling reporters on background that Rove has to go, will be sending him hasty love notes about how he beat the rap if Fitzgerald does not indict.
5. He's chastened. Rove can be difficult to work with. He is notoriously demanding and encroaches onto other people's turf—"not staying in his lane," as they say in the White House. He is still popular in the West Wing, but colleagues who occasionally grouse about his "always proving he is the smartest person in the room" hope that his brush with indictment could mellow him. If nothing else, Bush, who occasionally bristles at what he considers Rove's showboating, can look forward to reminding his star performer just how much grief his phone conversations about Joe Wilson's wife have caused the administration.
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