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Archive for Friday, May 19, 2006

Rove is still crucial to Bush

May 19, 2006

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Karl Rove's virtuoso performance this week before an audience of journalists and policy wonks seemed straight from the pages of Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman: "What, Me Worry?"

Dismal midterm election prospects? It was like this in 2004, and we did fine.

Low approval numbers for President Bush? The public is "sour" on the war; still, "the American people like this president."

The White House leak controversy that has placed him in potential legal jeopardy? My lawyer has said all we're going to say.

Though he conveyed an air of unreality, Rove also showed the unique mastery of substance and politics that has made him so crucial to Bush.

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, a friendly think tank, he reeled off an array of statistics designed to tout the administration's economic record and answer its critics.

To be sure, some of it recalled a saying Mark Twain attributed to the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, that in analyzing figures there were three kinds of lies: "lies, damned lies and statistics."

Rove noted that, contrary to general belief, the Bush tax cuts actually have increased the tax burden on wealthier Americans, declaring the share of the top 1 percent has risen by 1.5 percent.

That's how the Treasury figures it. But the Congressional Budget Office disputes that calculation. And there's no doubt that those with high incomes have gotten the bulk of the Bush tax cuts.

Rove also argued that, despite conservative criticism of Bush for failing to veto bloated spending bills, he achieved the desired results with 39 veto threats on six major bills.

As a result, he said, Bush has reduced "the growth of non-security discretionary spending" every year. But that covers only 15 percent of the budget. The biggest growth has been elsewhere: defense and income security programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Still, if some of Rove's statistics seemed shaky, his adeptness in answering a wide range of questions impressed journalists and even some Democrats not totally convinced by his effort to persuade them the skies are not falling.

Asked how he hoped to turn things around by November, he conceded, "Look, we're in a sour time. I readily admit it."

But he said, "I heard this same kind of language about the 2004 elections in roughly the March, April, May, June period of ... 2004," adding, "We're going to be just fine in the fall elections.

"And we're going to be fine because we stand for things that are important. We stand for strong national defense abroad and complete victory in the war on terrorism, which involves victory in Iraq," he said. "And our opponents, at this point, stand for little or nothing, except mere obstructionism."

What about conservative critics of the administration's record on spending? someone asked. "Are they missing something?"

"Yes," he replied. "They're missing the facts."

He gave detailed analyses of issues such as health care, energy and Social Security. Previewing the president's Monday night speech, he stressed the need for "a comprehensive program" on immigration, while noting, "We're doing a heckuva better job of getting control of the border" than is generally realized.

Bush's job approval is down because the public is "just sour right now on the war," he said, contending the president's "personal approvals are in the 60s," which means "people like him, they respect him, he's somebody they feel a connection with."

He didn't cite a specific survey; the five most recent public polls have shown that a majority has an unfavorable view of Bush.

But this was a day to accentuate the positive. While some questions were pointed, only one even hinted at the legal cloud hanging over Rove from the continuing grand jury probe of whether he lied in testimony about his role, if any, in identifying former CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Though Rove's advice has not always been flawless, the session clearly showed how much Bush would lose if deprived of the close counsel of the man he calls the "architect" of his success.

Cabinet secretaries and press spokesmen can be replaced. But perhaps the only person these days who shares Rove's encyclopedic knowledge and sophistication about both politics and substance is the Democrat who preceded Bush - and who may soon emerge as the chief strategist for the woman who hopes to become his successor.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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