Rove proving to be more of a risk-taker

Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 9:18 p.m.
WASHINGTON - When it comes to setting priorities for President Bush's new-year domestic agenda, White House political adviser Karl Rove argues for a politically risky path: revive Bush's plan for riding some Social Security funds on the volatile stock market.
There could hardly be a trickier time for putting the cherished entitlement program within reach of the market. But Rove is proving more of a risk-taker than his reputation has suggested until now.
Painted by critics as the White House's all-powerful, all-politics, win-at-all-costs animal, Rove shows at a closer look more mastery of policy, more willingness to make waves on politically sensitive matters - and less command over Bush's decisions than conventional wisdom holds.
At 52, Rove shows little care about his own personal style (no designer suits, expensive coif or cufflinks for him), but he fiercely guards his professional image. Suggesting a thin skin unusual to hardball politicos, Rove has been known to take a fine-toothed comb to news articles about him and harangue their writers about the smallest critical details.
Saxby Chambliss, hand-picked by Rove for an underdog campaign unseating Georgia's Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, said he was surprised by Rove's counsel to be provocative.
After Chambliss caused a furor with a post-Sept. 11 joke about arresting Muslims who come across the state line, Rove soothed the contrite candidate with this advice: "If you don't have bumps in the road, you're not being aggressive enough." The president has dubbed Rove, an intimate from Bush's early days in Texas politics, his "political guru." And two Texas authors at work on books about Rove fought over the title "Bush's Brain," with one eventually settling for "Boy Genius" instead.
He is so enamored of policy that his wonkish way with conversation is reminiscent of Bill Clinton. Rove can tick off on his fingers the sponsors of every House and Senate bill to overhaul Social Security, and what percentage of Social Security taxes each would divert to individual retirement accounts.
Rove effectively ordered the idea of Social Security's partial privatization shelved as Republicans campaigned for control of Congress this past year.
Now he wants to dust it off. According to advisers privy to the internal debate, Rove wants to gamble Bush's postelection political capital now, when it is strongest, believing that by the time Bush's 2004 re-election campaign rolls around, the appeal to younger workers will outweigh any "fear mongering" Democrats can do among senior citizens.
Whether he's arguing for calculated caution or a gamble, Rove's fingerprints are everywhere in the West Wing and on the campaign trail.
He's in all domestic policy meetings, he controls which interest groups get invited to White House events, and he dictated not only Bush's aggressive campaign itinerary but also the Republican Party's winning campaign focus on war and homeland security.
On the sidelines of this year's presidential fund raisers, Rove quietly offered private "briefings" to heavy hitters for an extra fee, as in Los Angeles in August.
"He was very glib and very informative. People loved it," said Herrington. Earlier this month, New York City Republicans forked over a stunning $250,000 to schmooze Rove at a reception benefiting the Louisiana runoff campaign of Senate hopeful Suzanne Haik Terrell. Terrell's loss to Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu was a rare blemish on Rove's recent winning streak.
With success has come fresh scrutiny - not only by Democrats smarting from defeat, but also from a one-time insider.
John DiIulio, former director of Bush's office of faith-based initiatives, told Esquire magazine that Rove leads a band of "Mayberry Machiavellis" in the White House - policy simpletons who don't know Medicare from Medicaid and don't care about anything but politics. (DiIulio has since said his comments were a mistake.)
"There are always strong political forces within any administration; Rove's is out-sized because there is not a well-developed policy shop," said Democratic strategist Joe Lockhart, a veteran of the Clinton administration. "People want to demonize Rove, but he's only doing his job. The problem is that the president and the policy people aren't."
Rove's policy recommendations may serve political interests - as the chief inside contact for Christian conservative leaders outside, Rove notably sided against both embryonic stem cell research and international family planning funds - but they are indisputably informed recommendations.
His second-floor West Wing office sits at the intersection of partisan politics and White House policy, a straddling illustrated most succinctly in the side-by-side pairing on a book shelf closest to his desk. "The Almanac of American Politics" sits beside Matt Ridley's "Genome," a dense tome on genetic research. The summer departure of presidential counselor Karen Hughes left White House observers speculating Rove would exercise unchecked power in the West Wing. But co-workers insist he has no veto power, is just one person on the committees that recommend policy, and operates under Chief of Staff Andrew Card's need-to-know rule.
For example, Card and others were at work on Bush's massive government-reorganization plan for several months before Rove was informed.

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