Strategist Karl Rove's departure from the White House may signal the official end of an era of ambition for both the presidency of George Bush and the Republican Party as a whole.
The man President Bush dubbed "The Architect" long dreamed of leading a shift in US politics that would establish the GOP as the nation's clear majority party. His policy goals were similarly grand – he pushed for seismic change in American education, retirement programs, and immigration policy, among other things.
His plans won two tough presidential elections. But US political realignment, if it's happening, appears to favor Democrats. And today, the administration's domestic agenda is at best stalled – and at worst gone with the wind.
"I think this takes the broadest claims for the Bush presidency off the table, as Karl Rove goes out the door," says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Mr. Rove's departure may also deprive the administration's critics of one of their favorite targets.
Democrats have long accused Rove of favoring a scorched-earth style of campaigning designed to win by dividing the electorate. They've seen his hand in everything from the leak to the press of the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame, whose husband was a critic of the war in Iraq; to the firing of eight US attorneys last year, possibly for improper political reasons.
The White House has declined to allow Rove to testify under oath before Congress in the US attorneys matter, citing executive privilege. Whether lawmakers continue to pursue him in private life with subpoenas to testify remains to be seen.
"Many in Congress believe Rove was behind all this US attorney business and really orchestrated it," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "But they've not been able to prove it."
In one sense Rove's departure was expected. Officials often leave an administration as its time in office winds down, and the Bush White House is no exception. Among those who have already left are White House counselor Dan Bartlett, budget director Rob Portman, and top White House attorney Harriet Miers. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Bartlett's name.]
"For someone to be in a White House for a full eight years is a very unusual thing," says Professor Jillson.
But from a tactical point of view, Rove's announcement was a shock. There were none of the usual rumors of departure. The news was passed, unusually, in an interview with Paul Gigot, the editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Karl Rove has been Bush's political adviser since the beginning of the latter's political career as governor of Texas.
"We've been friends for a long time and we're still going to be friends," said Bush at a White House appearance with Rove on Monday.
Rove told The Journal that he plans to write a book about his experiences, and that in all likelihood his days as a political consultant are over.
"There's always something that can keep you here, and as much as I'd like to be here, I've got to do this for the sake of my family," he told reporters on Aug. 13 at the White House. Rove plans to return to Texas with his wife and son, who is a university student in San Antonio.
Rove never graduated from college himself. Instead, he entered professional politics at a young age, winning the post of chairman of the party's College Republicans organization.
As a political consultant, he distinguished himself with a style that might be considered sunny ferocity. He hammered at opponents' weaknesses, looking for just enough votes to prevail.
As Bush's chief political aide, Rove dreamed of leading a political realignment on the scale of President William McKinley's 1896 victory. Though perhaps under-appreciated today, McKinley's win cemented GOP control of the White House for a generation, after it had been wavering due to the excesses and faults of Gilded Age Republican leaders.
But Rove's effort arguably has fallen short, say some analysts, in part due to the unexpected problems of the Iraq War, and in part due to Rove's own missteps.
Following Bush's 2004 re-election, Rove was appointed deputy chief of staff for policy, and took on an explicit role in crafting White House policy decisions. He pushed for a transformation of Social Security via private retirement accounts. Yet Social Security remains a third rail of US politics, and the effort failed.
Rove also pressed for sweeping change in the nation's immigration system. He has long thought Hispanics a possible source of numerous GOP votes. But this year's immigration bill disintegrated under pressure from both left and right, and that effort appears moribund.
"It's a very mixed and controversial record, and that's the fairest summation," says Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. If Rove's goal was realignment, "The evidence is clear that he failed, says Sabato.