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March 17 2006 4:57 PM

Shaken, Not Stirred

It doesn't matter if Bush replaces his White House staff.

Karl Rove and George W. Bush. Click image to expand.
Karl Rove and George W. Bush

Here's how the Bush administration deals with a problem that won't go away: Washington insiders start talking about it; the pressure builds; the press won't shut up about it; administration officials resist and insist they'll do nothing; then Chief of Staff Andy Card emerges from the Situation Room with a plan to do what White House officials said they wouldn't do and an explanation of how they had been planning on it all along. That's how the Department of Homeland Security was created.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Now, unfortunately for Card, the problem that won't go away is him. The issue of the White House staff has become a Washington obsession. Everyone has a theory: Bush's aides are too tired. They're out of touch. They're beset with legal problems. They've gotten clumsy.

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White House officials dismiss all the recent chatter but won't say whether the president is contemplating any staff reconfiguration. There seem to be a lot of calls for it. Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has said he's concerned the president's aides are not serving him well. CBS News reported that Howard Baker, chief of staff to Ronald Reagan and ambassador to Japan for this administration, had placed a call to the White House on Tuesday and urged the hiring of former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee to inject some new blood. Administration insiders have been leaking to the New York Times and Washington Post about the need for a shake-up. If the White House doesn't signal that it has heard these complaints, soon someone is going to rent an ad on the side of a blimp.

But what exactly would a shake-up mean? It's not as though this administration is static. There have already been so many departures from it that they can be broken up into categories:

*I can't work here: Colin Powell, Rand Beers, and John Dilulio

* I can't work here; I'll tell you why in print: Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke, Christie Todd Whitman

* My job is done here: George Tenet, Tommy Franks, Paul Bremer

* I can't work here because I'm going to court: Scooter Libby, Claude Allen, David Safavian

* I can't work anywhere: Michael Brown

White House churn is not the problem. There has been plenty of fresh blood. Realistically, a shake-up only means one person: Karl Rove. Andy Card may need to go, but he's not the power in the White House and Bush orbit that Rove is. Rove is the chief political tactician, enforcer, and policy guru. If he doesn't go, nothing has been shaken up. If he does go, anyone replacing him would have a hard time filling his shoes, especially so fast. Also, to be effective, Rove's successor is going to need a very strong personality to tell the president and Cheney when they're wrong and have it stick. (A staffer brought in to tell them when they're right isn't needed; there are enough of those.) George Bush likes routine, and it seems impossible that he'd be able to trust this new super-player enough to get anything done in the small amount of time he has left to accomplish anything.

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