Is Republican strategist Karl Rove attacking Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton because he really wants to help her win the Democratic presidential nomination? Do Democrats sound paranoid when they suspect that he is? If so, as the old saying goes, that doesn't mean somebody is not out to get them.
I have a slightly different theory. As Mr. Rove departs his long-held post at the ear of President Bush, I think his recent bash-Hillary tour of media interviews is the first Band-Aid in his attempts to patch up the damage he left behind, both to his party's prospects and his president's legacy.
After all, with Republicans largely dispirited and in disarray in their search for a front-runner in the presidential race, what better way to pull the forces together than to wave their longtime foe in their faces?
Mr. Rove has tried this form of reverse psychology before. As the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, former Rove associate Matthew Dowd revealed at a 2004 Harvard University conference that Mr. Bush's re-election team went after Sen. John Kerry because they were more afraid of then-Sen. John Edwards.
Mr. Rove laughed off the notion that he was attacking Mrs. Clinton because Republicans were more worried about Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Yet, despite coaxing from interviewers, he declined to criticize any other candidate but Mrs. Clinton. Why?
Whatever Mr. Rove's reasons may be for boosting the former first lady's prospects, she cheerfully played along. By now, her back-and-forth with Mr. Rove is a familiar dance, and she had the steps down pat. Mrs. Clinton responded during a debate in Des Moines that morning, "I don't think Karl Rove is going to endorse me, but I find it interesting that he's obsessed with me." That laugh line worked with the debate audience because it had a sharp ring of truth.
She also has had a chance to rehearse it. After Mr. Rove made very similar predictions about her political future in Bill Sammon's book, Strategery, published in February 2006, Mrs. Clinton responded in a radio interview with a weary sigh and bemusement that Mr. Rove "spends a lot of time obsessing about me."
If Mr. Rove, in his famously Machiavellian fashion, is trying to set Mrs. Clinton up to fail, he'd best be careful what he asks for. She's a fighter who has defied predictions before, and she's married to one of the best political strategists in America. As she noted in the debate, she's been taking heavy fire from the right and dishing it back for more years than the rest of the current field. And despite the high negatives to which Rove referred, she scores positives just as high among Democrats. As a result, she has been holding a solid lead in national polls, although she was in a virtual tie with Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards in ABC's Iowa poll at the time of the debate.
I think Mr. Rove is more concerned at this point with building morale in his own party. With Mr. Bush a lame duck and unable to get much in the way of major initiatives past the Democratic Congress, Mr. Rove can devote himself to his memoir, which I expect will offer a master class in political spin. He can also help Republican candidates try to win and shore up what's left of Mr. Bush's legacy, as the president struggles with desperately low approval ratings.
If the reputation of a spin doctor is only as good as his or her last victory, Mr. Rove's rep slipped into meltdown with the collapse of Mr. Bush's Social Security reforms, immigration reforms, the "thumpin'" that Democrats gave Mr. Bush in last year's midterm elections and, of course, the deepening mess in Iraq.
Mr. Rove's eyes are on Mr. Bush's legacy, to which his own legacy is tied like a bell to a cat. The political guru who came in with a vision of long-term Republican dominance comparable to William McKinley's era is leaving by comparing his president to Harry Truman, whose low public approval eventually grew, although not until two or three decades later.
To begin that recovery process, Mr. Rove offers the specter of a President Hillary Clinton as one would frighten a mouse with a rubber snake. Negative campaigns work sometimes. But as Mr. Rove should know by now, sooner or later people want to know what you are for, not just whom you are against.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.