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Wednesday, January 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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E.J. Dionne / Syndicated columnist

The evil genius of Karl Rove

WASHINGTON — Perhaps it's an aspect of compassionate conservatism. Or maybe it's just a taunt and a dare.

Well in advance of Election Day, Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, has a habit of laying out his party's main themes, talking points and strategies.

True Rove junkies (admirers and adversaries alike) always figure he's holding back on something and wonder what formula the mad scientist is cooking up in his political lab. But there is a beguiling openness about Rove's divisive and ideological approach to elections. You wonder why Democrats have never been able to take full advantage of their early look at the Rove game plan.

That's especially puzzling because, since Sept. 11, 2001, the plan has focused on one variation or another of the same theme: Republicans are tough on our enemies, Democrats are not. If you don't want to get blown up, vote Republican.

Thus Rove's speech to the Republican National Committee last Friday, which conveniently said nothing about that pesky leak investigation. Rove noted that we face "a ruthless enemy" and "need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment America finds itself in."

"President Bush and the Republican Party do," Rove informed us. "Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats."

Rove went on: "Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic — not at all. But it does make them wrong — deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

Oh, no, those Dems aren't unpatriotic, just security idiots.

Here's why the same approach keeps working.

First, note that phrase, "the same cannot be said for many Democrats." This is Rove's wedge through the Democratic Party. Rove has always counted on Bush's capacity to intimidate some Democrats into breaking with their party and saying something like: "Oh, no, I'm not like those weak Democrats over there. I'm a tough Democrat." The Republicans use such Democrats to bash the rest of the party.

Moreover, these early Rove speeches turn Democratic strategists into defeatists. The typical Democratic consultant says: "Hey, national security is a Republican issue. We shouldn't engage on that. We should change the subject." In the 2002 elections, the surefire Democratic winners were a prescription-drug benefit under Medicare (an issue Bush tried to steal), a patients' bill of rights, the economy and education. Those issues sure worked wonders, didn't they?

By not engaging the national-security debate, Democrats cede to Rove the power to frame it. Consider that clever line about Democrats having a pre-9/11 view of the world. The typical Democratic response would be defensive: "No, no, of course 9/11 changed the world." More specifically, there's a lot of private talk among Democrats that the party should let go of the issue of warrantless spying on Americans because the polls show that a majority values security and safety.

What Democrats should have learned is that they cannot evade the security debate. They must challenge the terms under which Rove and Bush would conduct it. Imagine, for example, directly taking on that 9/11 line. Does having a "post-9/11 worldview" mean allowing President Bush to do absolutely anything he wants, any time he wants to, without having to answer to the courts, to Congress or the public?

Most Americans — including a lot of libertarian-leaning Republicans — reject such an anti-constitutional view of presidential power. If Democrats aren't willing to take on this issue, what's the point of being an opposition party?

Democrats want to fight this election on the issue of Republican corruption. But corruption is about the abuse of power. If smart political consultants can't figure out how to link the petty misuses of power with its larger abuses, they are not earning their big paychecks.

And, yes, the core questions must be asked: Are we really safer now than we were five years ago? Has the Iraq War, as organized and prosecuted by the administration, made us stronger or weaker? Do we feel more secure knowing the heck of a job our government did during Hurricane Katrina? Do we have any confidence that the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies will clean up their act if Washington remains under the sway of one-party government?

Imagine one Super Bowl team tipping the other to a large part of its offensive strategy. Smart coaches would plot and plan and scheme. You wonder what Democrats will do with the 10-month lead time Rove has kindly offered them.

E.J. Dionne's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is postchat@aol.com

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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