A show of hands: How many of you are surprised that President Bush has put his thumb on the scales of justice and decreed that a convicted perjurer in a national security case, a felon who was enmeshed in a White House campaign of deception to discredit a critic of the Iraq war, is somehow less deserving of jail time than Paris Hilton?
No, it’s hardly a surprise that the same guy who once promised to “restore honesty and integrity to the White House,” the same president who had previously denied more than 4000 commutation requests, has now opted to grant Scooter Libby his very own Independence Day. And it seems only perversely fitting that Bush canceled Libby’s 30-month prison sentence on the fourth anniversary of his mocking invitation to the insurgents in Iraq (“Bring ‘em on!”). Under the ethos of this administration, those in the inner circle who blunder or break the law in the service of ruinous policy shall be deemed exempt from the rules of accountability that apply to the rest of us.
Never mind the fact that Bush played fast and loose with the Department of Justice guidelines, which state that “requests for commutation generally are not accepted unless and until a person has begun serving that sentence.” (Libby, free on appeal, hadn’t yet served a day.) Or the fact that Bush, by decreeing the sentence “excessive,” slapped down a federal judge whom he himself had appointed to the bench. (The tough-on-crime judge, Reggie Walton, apparently had made the mistake of insisting that high government officials had a “special obligation” to obey the law.) Or the fact that, just 12 days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that makes it tougher for convicted felons to reduce their jail time (the high court upheld the 33-month sentence of Victor Rita, who had been convicted of making false statements in a weapons investigation; Rita, like Libby, had been punished in accordance with federal sentencing guidelines).
None of those little details matter a whit to those Republicans who are cheering Bush this morning (the same Republicans who, during the Bill Clinton era, routinely invoked the primacy of “the rule of law”).
And Bush badly needed to hear those cheers. The decision to free Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff was a political act, designed to shore up support among his sole remaining constituency. His presidency has devolved to the point where only 27 percent of Americans praise his work – that’s Dick Nixon/Jimmy Carter territory – and his national share would be even lower, if not for the fact that roughly two of every three Republicans are still on board. He could ill afford to tick them off any further.
Grassroots conservatives have been especially angry at Bush lately, because of the immigration reform flap. In their view (amplified daily on talk radio), Bush’s support for the path-to-citizenship bill was proof that he is soft on illegal aliens, soft on border security, and therefore soft on national security. His only path to political redemption was to show the base that he could stand up and be a man. Which meant showing loyalty to Scooter Libby. In their view, Libby hadn’t really done anything wrong, such as lying under oath about sex.
So Bush had to show loyalty to the few (shaky) supporters he still has. And, of course, he had to show continued loyalty to his constituency of one, Libby’s ex-boss, the sole occupant of the mythical fourth branch of government. The Associated Press, reporting last night on the decision to commute Libby’s sentence, deadpanned: “White House officials…would not say what advice Cheney had given to the president.”
Cheney’s public standing is equally abysmal, but Bush is long past caring what most Americans think. His support among swing-voting independents is now at 18 percent, and there’s nothing he can do to win them back. So, in a sense, it’s probably liberating to be a maligned lame duck. Perhaps the best way to assess his Libby decision is to invoke the lyrics of Kris Kristofferson:
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”