Being Karl Rove

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Susan Estrich
By November 3, Karl Rove will either be a genius or a fool.

If Bush wins, he’s a genius, and everyone knew it all along.  If Bush loses, everyone was smarter than him from the start;  heck, he almost lost 2000 by taking off too much time at the end. If it hadn’t been for the lawyers, and the Court….

Right now, though, he has best friends everywhere. No one goes on the record against him.  NO one says anything but nice things to his face. Very nice things. That’s what power means.

In case you’ve lived under a rock for four years, Karl Rove is George Bush’s “guy,” his key strategist, his closest adviser. He’s not the chief of staff, not the national security adviser, not the domestic policy chief or the campaign manager.  He’s not the guy who tells you what to do, so much as how to do  it, if you can do it, when you can do it, and who you’re going to have to do it with.

What makes Karl Rove special is not, ultimately, that he can come up with better advice for George Bush than anyone else under the planet. What makes him different is his relationship with his boss.

Make no mistake, of course he’s smart.  There are plenty of people who hold themselves out as political consultants. The dumb ones don’t get as far as Karl.  I taught government with him some years ago at the Salzburg Institute, pre-President Bush, of course, to aspiring politicians and political leaders from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. No question he is one of the best in the Republican Party, and was then.

But there are only so many ideas under the sun.  Be positive, be negative, attack, don’t attack;  Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota — Hire five consultants and you’ll hear every idea under the sun twice.

And then which do you pick?

Whom do you listen to?  Whose judgment gets the most weight?

To George Bush’s credit (and far be it from me to give him credit), he and Karl Rove have been together for awhile. That’s not common in politics, and it speaks well for the boss.  A good consultant or manager has to be able to tell the boss when he’s wrong.  Many of them don’t take well to that, and use up people because of it. Clearly, George Bush isn’t one of them.

The difference between Karl Rove and almost everyone else in the business is how long he’s lasted next to the man he works for. That gives him far more power than your average political beast. People believe Bush listens to him, which is enough.

This time of year, it’s counts to say you saw Karl Rove, talked to Karl Rove, heard from him, etc. The problem with being Karl Rove, or anyone remotely like him, is that you have very little time to do anything other than feed the hunger of those who need to say they’ve talked to you every day about almost nothing.

The good thing for Karl is that his boss is a better candidate than he is a President, and that the campaign trail enforces its own discipline where the political chief is once again king.

There are many people in this business who sell their advice for a living. They draw lines about who they sell their advice to: they only sell to Democrats or Republicans or moderates or whatever. Still, there is a difference between advice bought for the season, and someone like Rove who has been in it with you from the start, between someone who will work for anyone who hires him and someone who only works for you.

That’s the difference between Rove and nearly everyone else in the business.  It makes Karl nearly irreplaceable.  It also makes it all his fault.