Ambrose: Karl Rove’s legacy still up in the air

Karl Rove is leaving the Bush administration, and one likely line will be that still another rat is deserting a sinking ship, and not just any rat, but Captain Rat, the rat that led the ship to disaster in the first place.

There are problems with the categorizing of Rove as all-powerful, devious and destructive. His title is deputy chief of staff, but he has been far more than that, a top adviser at virtually every turn of the road on politics and policy. The mistake of some critics has been to see him as petty in this role, calculating benefits from stances chosen for momentary benefit, no matter the merits.

His overall purpose is reported to have been the realignment of American politics to make the Republican Party an enduringly powerful force in the way Franklin Roosevelt realigned politics to make the Democratic Party such a force. But it seems clear to me that he has wanted to do this not just to serve George W. Bush or GOP candidates running for Congress, but, among other worthy goals, to bring free-market institutions more forcefully to bear on solving our problems.

An example of this would be the administration push to use private savings accounts as a means of rescuing Social Security from the crisis that awaits it not too many years from now. Not only could the system be salvaged by this means in combination with other restructuring ideas, but the least affluent among us would have an avenue by which to accumulate real wealth over their lifetimes.

The idea was shouted down by intellectuals who weren’t intellectual enough to see past their own uninformed ideological obstinacy, and by demagogic Democrats who would rather scare the public than serve it.

According to Joshua Green in a thoughtful piece in The Atlantic magazine, Rove failed to reach out to Democrats so as to make them part of a compromising process that then could have led to success. Green says this is typical of Rove — he wants to get to his objectives from the top down. In Washington, that seldom works, at least not over the long run.

Rove is hardly minus successes, among them Bush’s re-election with a record number of votes in 2004. The problem is when you get to the question of what he has done for the administration lately. Not too much, least of all the 2006 election in which Republicans took a drubbing that some say may keep them down and out for a long, long time. The expectations of legislative achievements over the remaining 19 months of the Bush administration are somewhere between none and next to none, many contend.

But Rove is not the only factor, adviser or important actor in what adds up to bad news for the White House, and the bad news is mostly overstated while the good news about the surge in Iraq, the economy, historically low deficits, high revenues, decreased homelessness and a host of other matters is understated, neglected or denied.

The future will provide the ultimate test of whether this interesting figure accomplished something large and good or was merely regrettable, and while some guesses of what’s to come are more educated than others, they all remain guesses.

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