Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Dodging the silver bullet

This is what passes for great news at the beleaguered Bush White House: The president's chief political guru gets word from federal prosecutors that he is not an accused criminal.

Nevertheless, the news that Karl Rove will not be charged in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case is clearly a political victory for the Bush administration. (In the careful words of Rove's lawyer, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald sent word that he "does not anticipate seeking charges.") Disappointment in the opposition camp is undoubtedly palpable. After all, Bush critic Joseph Wilson, Plame's husband, had publicly expressed his hope that Rove would be "frog-marched" out of his White House job; and liberal blogs have been giddy for months about a supposedly imminent "Fitzmas" present.

Yes, court documents have indicated that Rove and the indicted Scooter Libby were both involved in the leak of classified information about CIA employe Plame's identity -- notwithstanding the early White House claims that Rove played no role whatsoever. And yes, the record indicates that Rove discussed her with two reporters, Matt Cooper and Robert Novak. And yes, the White House did insist early on that such leaks were unacceptable ("That is not the way this President or this White House operates," said press secretary Scott McClellan), and yes, the White House did promise back in 2003 that anyone involved in such a leak would no longer be allowed to work there.

Nevertheless, as all the polls have long suggested, the Plame leak case has not been a burning concern for the average American. The chronology is complicated, and, for many people, the details just seem like typical inside-the-Beltway inside baseball. (At the liberal blogger convention that I covered over the weekend, a 90-minute session was devoted to the case, yet even one of the presenters told me that she had to spend many hours getting up to speed on all the intricate details of who supposedly said what to whom when.)

Only one element could have given the Bush critics a massive PR victory: a Rove indictment. That would have reduced the case to a widely resonant soundbite. Bush's political mastermind, dragged into the docket? That would have been devastating. Instead, the news that Rove is in the clear will allow the Republicans to rebuke the Rove-haters for cheering his demise in advance; indeed, GOP chairman Ken Mehlman is already on the prowl, demanding that Democrats apologize for "rushing to judgement."

Longtime Rove critics are taking the fallback position today, suggesting that just because Rove wasn't criminally indicted, it doesn't mean he didn't do something ethically sleazy. As Democratic chairman Howard Dean put it today, "The prosecutor's decision not to indict Karl Rove does not diminish the fact that (he) was involved in leaking the identity of an intelligence operative during a time of war." It's certainly true that, in Washington, there are many variations of vicious hardball (Rove being a reputedly master practitioner) that aren't necessarily criminal in nature; and it's still reasonable to wonder whether a top aide who may have used classified material to retaliate against a war critic (Wilson) still deserves to remain in the President's inner circle.

But that's thin gruel for the Bush critics who were anticipating a much bigger payoff -- particularly some of the liberal bloggers who might feel embarrassed today that their earlier "reporting" of an imminent indictment has turned to dust. I wrote last month about the problem of partisan misinformation on the blogosphere (here), and specifically about the supposedly slam dunk of a Rove indictment, which was widely circulated. As recently as yesterday, the most offending website was insisting that we had been denied the news of Rove's cinch indictment only because the court documents that detailed the official accusations had been sealed. Don't hold your breath for a full retraction.

I received an email yesterday from a blog fan who insisted, "When I want the full truth, I rely on the net." My response to that: Don't.

Meanwhile, the uber blogger himself, Markos Moulitsas, has similar advice this morning. he writes on DailyKos.com: "I hope this serves a lesson to all of you who link to crap Internet sources...merely because they write what you want to hear.....This is the reality based community, not the 'make up your own reality' community. Conservatives already own the trademark to that name. Be properly skeptical of everything you read. Even on this site. And if I use blind sources, which I'm apt to do every once in a while, be particularly skeptical. I won't be offended."

Still, it's critical to look beyond today's events and stay focused on the big picture. The key question is whether the Rove PR victory helps to fuel a sustainable Bush comeback, or whether it will prove to be merely ephemeral, a temporary reprieve along a downward slide.

Right now the White House is trying to take the offensive on many fronts -- seeking to parlay Rove-is-innocent/Zarqawi-is-dead/Bush-visits-Baghdad into positive political gold, coupled with the news that the newest Iraqi prime minister has finally filled out his Cabinet. There is even a new poll that shows a rise in Bush's job performance rating since Zarqawi died (OK, it's only two points). There is certainly no desire to cede any ground to the opposition; Rove, speaking in New Hampshire last night, threw down the gauntlet for the '06 elections by (again) accusing Democrats of "cutting and running" from Iraq.

But none of this will matter as long as the sectarian strife continues in Iraq; indeed, another new poll finds that only 16 percent of Americans anticipate less violence in the wake of Zarqawi's death, and that 82 percent now view the Iraq conflict as a civil war. The ultimate verdict on this administration will hinge on what happens abroad, not on whether Karl Rove is criminally accused.


You know the smell that permeates not just your neighborhood every day, but millions of neighborhoods nationwide? That pungent stench from all that burning cloth? Surely you are aware of the hordes of anarchists who are burning American flags? Surely you have seen this runaway epidemic of treason highlighted regularly on, say, Fox News?

OK, so you haven't seen or smelled this? Not even once? Me, either. Wait, that's not entirely true; in recent years, there was a documented report of one drunken teenage who tried to burn Old Glory in 2005.

But just in case such havoc is wreaked in some future time, the U.S. Senate is ready to put a stop to it. As this report suggests, the chamber is now only one vote away from enacting a constitutional amendment (the Senate tally takes place late this month) -- with the help of many fearful Democratic senators, including Hillary Clinton, who have decided that their First Amendment concerns can't compete in the emotional marketplace with a tried and true salute to the red, white, and blue.