Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why haven't elected Republican politicians called for the pardon of Scooter Libby? Take a guess

It would appear that the campaign to pardon Scooter Libby represents a broad swath of the conservative/Republican coalition.We read that personal friends of the convicted felon are pushing for President Bush to absolve him with the stroke of a pen; that the “editorial boards” at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and National Review all want Libby to be set free; that Libby’s “defense team” wants Bush to make things right; that prominent conservative lawyers, such as Victoria Toensing, want to see Cheney’s Cheney pardoned, on the grounds that he never should have been prosecuted in the first place.

But one faction is conspicuously AWOL: Elected Republican politicians.

To the best of my knowledge, not a single Republican on Capitol Hill has called for Bush to pardon Libby. Nor have any of the ’08 Republican presidential hopefuls leapt at the opportunity to urge absolution for the defendant who lied under oath, obstructed federal investigators, and worked with his boss to discredit a critic of the Bush administration’s bogus prewar WMD evidence.

Why all the thunderous silence? Here’s a wild guess: Unlike all the personal friends and editorial boards and defense lawyers and activists, the Republicans who have to face the voters in 2008 can’t afford to be blasé about the mood of the American electorate. And on virtually all matters relating to the war in Iraq, the mood does not bode well for Republican candidates. In the latest bipartisan poll sponsored by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, 69 percent of Americans say they are pessimistic about the war’s outcome; in the latest CBS-New York Times poll, Bush's approval rating on Iraq stands at 23 percent (that's no typo). But most relevant to the Libby affair are the longstanding numbers showing that a majority believe the Bush team deliberately misled us into war.

So why would any ’08 Republican candidate want to publicly endorse a Libby pardon – and thus, in the shorthand of politics, implicitly endorse the Bush administration deceptions that led to war? Why, at this point, should Republican candidates be eager to embrace a cause celebre that would merely underscore their Iraq war burden? Here’s how the Democrats would likely spin a GOP candidate’s call for a pardon: “By asking President Bush to pardon Libby, Republican X is refusing to hold the administration accountable for the prewar deceptions and the intimidation of those who questioned those deceptions. The American people demanded accountability in the 2006 elections, and they will demand it again in 2008.”

Or something like that. And unless the Republican candidate hails from a deeply-red state or district, the Democratic argument could do some damage.

Even John Podhoretz, one of the pro-pardon conservative commentators, argues nevertheless that Bush can’t absolve Libby at a time when Republicans are trying to run for office. As he wrote yesterday, “For political reasons, Bush can’t pardon Libby (right now). His responsibilities as head of the Republican party, heading into an election year, would preclude such action.”

So he’s calling for a pardon during Bush’s final days (which is the way Bill Clinton pardoned financier-felon Mark Rich, the senior George Bush pardoned the Iran-Contra defendants, and Ronald Reagan pardoned George Steinbrenner for his ’74 election law violations). Podhoretz thinks that Bush will have no choice:“(If he) fails to pardon Libby, he will implicitly be accepting the contention that Scooter Libby was part of a White House conspiracy at the highest levels to destroy the career of a CIA agent (Valerie Plame Wilson) whose husband (Joseph Wilson) had proved Bush & Co. had lied us into the Iraq War.”

Yet Republican politicians are currently silent about the pardon issue precisely because they know that a majority of Americans already believe that “Bush & Co,” lied them into war, and they won’t want to be seen as defending one of the key players – somebody who lied under oath, no less.

But at least one pardon supporter, GOP strategist Rich Galen, has a different take on the current political landscape. He thinks that the Republican candidates should embrace the pardon issue. Galen, in fact, was calling for a Libby pardon before the trial even began, and he’d like to see a pardon forthwith.

I exchanged emails with him this morning, and he offered several arguments (for instance, that there’s no political downside for Bush to issue a pardon, because Bush is not on the ballot in 2008; because he retains the loyalty of most conservatives, who would welcome the pardon anyway; and because his overall poll numbers can’t go much lower than they already are).

But with respect to the GOP candidates, he said this: “The election isn't until November 2008. It is impossible for me to believe that ANYone will remember the Scooter Libby pardon by then. In fact, I'd like to see some data that indicates anyone who lives more than five miles west of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor tracks knows or cares about the case….Similarly, GOP candidates for the House or Senate can use the pardon issue to their best advantage. In swing, or marginally GOP districts which we lost in '06, it might be a great opportunity to draw a distinction – between the GOP challenger (for the pardon) and the Democratic incumbent (tied to Nancy Pelosi's hemline in opposition to the pardon).”

I wonder whether that would work. By their silence, however, it appears that most elected Republicans, and those seeking elective office, view the Libby case as yet another treacherous undertow in an ocean of woe. Which is why they are all swimming elsewhere.