Apologies to Karl Rove

08/16/2007 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Washington, DC -- It appears that I may have been unfair to Karl Rove in blaming him for the singularly tone-deaf politics of the Bush Administration's approach to public lands issues: Mark Rey's sustained campaign to cut off funding for rural schools; the oil and gas drilling orgy that turned much of the rural West from red to blue; the decision to have EPA set different, and less health-protective air quality standards for rural Americans; the indifference to the needs of blue-color commercial fishermen; and the systematic refusal to adequately fund fire-protection for Bush-loyal rural communities.

According to two recent reports, Rove didn't actually drive environmental policy for the Administration -- it was almost entirely the bailiwick of Vice-President Cheney. Cheney's role on environmental issues was laid out earlier this summer in a long report in the Washington Post that detailed Cheney's unprecedented involvement in the seeming minutiae of environmental conflicts like water management on the Klamath River. The Post report documents calls made to front-line bureaucrats in the Department of the Interior.

Cheney had reached far down the chain of command, on so unexpected a point of vice presidential concern, because he had spotted a political threat.... By combining unwavering ideological positions -- such as the priority of economic interests over protected fish -- with a deep practical knowledge of the federal bureaucracy, Cheney has made an indelible mark on the administration's approach to everything from air and water quality to the preservation of national parks and forests.

Now, in an Atlantic Monthly article that eerily appeared just as Rove walked out the door, Joshua Green argues that Rove by and large left environmental policy, like foreign affairs, to Cheney, and never saw environmental issues as being part of his master plan to reshape the American electorate. Since the rural Westerners Cheney's policies alienated were already a part of Rove's assumed Republican base, perhaps Rove myopically overlooked the possibility that even as he was struggling -- ultimately unsuccessfully -- to create a political realignment by broadening his party's base, Cheney was systematically hollowing out its foundations. Rove did, it is true, join Cheney in micro-managing the Klamath issue, making a 2002 election briefing to top managers at the Department of Interior on how much trouble the Klamath could make for Oregon Senator Gordon Smith. And his fine rhetorical hand was evident even in the 2000 campaign, softening Bush's hard edges with the pledge to do something unspecified about carbon dioxide pollution, as well as in terms like "Healthy Forests" and "Clear Skies." And Rove did, perhaps grudgingly, intervene in clean water regulation on behalf of Bush campaign donor Ernest Angelo -- one of the "appeals" that Joshua Green says Rove hated being asked to do.

But as Green points out, Rove was acutely sensitive to politics, not policy -- and was blind to the fact that policy impacts politics in ways that are not always intended. He left environmental policy to Cheney because it didn't figure in his grand scheme, except as a source of money for campaigns. But it appears that he never understood that Cheney was acutely sensitive only to policy, and to the financial base of the party, not its voters. Cheney's chickens would come home to Rove's roost.

In some ways, the picture of the White House you piece together from these two analyses is a new one: not the monolithic, unified, disciplined image the Administration projected for years, but that of a weak, if stubborn, president presiding over a two-headed "push me-pull you" creature out of Doctor Doolittle.

And it's clear that Cheney is still running the show. Just this week the Forest Service, having been rebuffed once by the federal courts, announced again a whole complicated set of regulatory and guidance changes for the Forest Service, all predicated on the notion that the American people have to be denied any knowledge about what is planned for their public lands, and that the Forest Service political leadership and the timber industry need unfettered control of our National Forests. A few days earlier the BLM proposed a sevenfold increase in logging old-growth trees that help forests resist fires.

So things may actually get worse environmentally as this Administration heads for the exist. We're going to be seeing a lot of folks rushing to the federal courthouse now that Cheney stands alone.