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President Bush -- not Karl Rove -- is calling the shots

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted January 6, 2003

I have just read the 28th article in a major newspaper about how much power and influence Karl Rove has in the Bush White House. This article also suggested that Vice President Dick Cheney has a lot of influence as well. How nice of that paper to acknowledge the role of the Vice President.

Most of the coverage of Rove suggests some sort of sinister role in politics and policy on his part. It is almost as if he is the real president and George Bush is just following Rove's orders.

Karl Rove
Rove

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rove is a loyal and trusted aide to the president and, indeed, George Bush does solicit his opinion on a wide variety of matters. But it is Bush, not Rove, who is calling the shots. However, Rove understands that it is useful for some people to believe that he has undue influence. That way they can be angry at Rove and still think that President Bush is a good guy.

The unexpected Republican capture of the Senate and increased strength in the House is attributed to Rove. He insists, and a subsequent conversation I had with the President confirms, that it was President Bush who understood that he had political capital and if he spent some of it, the payoff might be tremendous. Rove said that Bush was anxious to get going for the 2002 campaign. He wanted to get out there earlier than he did. Rove's role was to convince him that he needed to wait until he could be most effective.

I have seen three Democratic and five Republican Administrations up close during my time in Washington. This Bush Administration is by far the most effective of any of the Republican presidencies in seeking input from its coalition partners and acting upon their advice whenever possible. No administration can keep all elements of its coalition happy at all times. The key is to be sure that all elements have enough at stake in the coalition so that they will continue to support it come election time. Bush has done that extremely well and for that we can thank Rove. He has excellent people who assist him in making sure he is on top of what the coalition partners want. For example, Tim Goeglein deals largely with conservative and religious groups. Others deal with the business community and the Republican Party and all the other parts of the coalition that helped to elect Bush in 2000, as well as groups that did not support Bush. The views of these groups and the intensity of their feelings are conveyed to Rove, who then is able to explain to President Bush the consequences of any action that he might take and how it will affect his coalition. That is one factor in keeping the president's ratings as high as they continue to be.

Contrast this White House with Richard Nixon's. Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman completely controlled the flow of information to President Nixon. Their agenda was often different from his. He received only the information that they wanted him to hear. It almost isn't worth mentioning the Ford Administration. They had virtually no contact with what should have been their coalition. Young Dick Cheney, then Ford's chief of staff, was brilliant, but he was not experienced enough at the time to understand how a coalition worked.

The Reagan White House did make a real effort to find out what was on the minds of their coalition partners. They pioneered the idea of sending a White House staffer to the meetings of various groups. The problem was that the White House staff was deeply divided. Chief of Staff Jim Baker kept many of our views from the president. He was opposed by Ed Meese. Sometimes Meese would prevail and our views would reach Reagan. But more often than not the Baker faction, which worked in tandem with the media, had the upper hand. Reagan did a lot, but he could have accomplished so much more had he really known what was going on.

The situation improved somewhat when Baker left and Don Regan was chief of staff. But after he was fired and Howard Baker and Ken Duberstein were his chiefs of staff, we had the same old problem. Most of what we said never reached Reagan.

Then came George Herbert Walker Bush. John Sununu did an admirable job at first in digesting what the groups that comprised the Bush coalition were concerned about and then conveying their thoughts to the president. But then came the budget summit and the infamous tax hike. Sununu was in favor of the tax hike and tried to sell it to conservative groups. It didn't work. And after Sununu was fired, things grew even worse. By the end of the first Bush Administration, conservatives either felt shut out or were at war with the elder Bush.

Contrast these administrations with the current Bush White House. No one is perfect, of course, and Rove has, in my view, made some errors in judgment when it comes to some of the Muslims he has allowed inside the White House. But, by and large, this White House has been better run than any of the others. There are none of the bitter complaints lodged against the other GOP administrations about our views not reaching the president. Yes, the President doesn't always do what we want. That is to be expected. However, so far, President Bush has executed a remarkable balancing act, keeping all factions of his coalition relatively pleased. And for that we can thank Rove.

So when you read these stories or watch the television pieces suggesting that Rove is such a sinister influence on Bush, what they are really saying is thus far the Bush coalition is hanging together and that is hardly pleasing to the media.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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