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Rove’s Unused Gift

Mike Gerson, David Frum, Carl Cannon, and many others have offered their view of how history will judge Karl Rove’s contribution as political strategist and White House aide. All of them overlook what was perhaps Rove’s greatest—and least utilized—skill: explaining and advocating the Administration’s policies. Since the outset, the Bush White House has done a terrible job of defending itself in public. On political talk shows, Republican spokesmen were as likely to criticize the White House as they were their Democratic counterparts. Too often Scott McClellan, the ineffective White House spokesman, was the only voice making the case for the Administration. (By the time the far savvier Tony Snow arrived, most people had stopped listening.)

It was a stunning failure of imagination not to have given Rove a more prominent role as White House spokesman, and instead to have dispatched him to endless party-building activities. Rove was not merely a master of policy detail, but a compelling and persuasive debater. Democrats who saw him merely as a Republican James Carville never saw him speak before an audience. While Carville could deliver only partisan hyperbole, Rove was especially effective in front of skeptical audiences, whom he mesmerized with cool but passionate presentations of facts, history, and data. A year ago I saw him receive a standing ovation at the hyper-liberal Aspen Festival of Ideas. When he spoke there this year, making what sounded like an irrefutable case for the surge in Iraq, one of the prominent locals stood up and asked: “Why haven’t we heard these arguments before?” Why indeed.