The commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence is the big story of the day. No one who knows George W. Bush should be surprised. I was amused by earlier speculation that Bush would not grant clemency to Libby because he seldom granted pardons in Texas (26 pardons in six years as governor) and, of course, took a very hard line against clemency in death penalty cases. For Bush, loyalty is the ultimate trump card, and Scooter Libby was loyal. He withstood the pressure to reveal the possible involvement of his boss, Vice-President Cheney, in leaking Valerie Plame’s ties to the CIA, or causing the leak to occur. Perhaps maintainting his silence wasn’t that hard to do, since he had every reason to expect that the president would come to his aid. Nor do I think that this story is over. Libby is still a convicted criminal, and he still faces probation and a $250,000 fine. I would bet the proverbial farm that Bush will eventually give Libby a full pardon.
My personal view of the Libby case and similar prosecutions (such as the FBI’s pursuit of Henry Cisneros a decade ago) is not one that most readers will agree with. I believe that the criminalization of political ethics is bad for the country and bad for the political process. It shifts the focus of political debate from the halls of Congress to the courtroom. It makes impeachment, a process that should be invoked in only the most extreme cases, an all too attractive remedy. It tempts prosecutors like Kenneth Starr to burnish their reputations by going for the jugular. Too often the crime that lies at the heart of an investigation — in Libby’s case, the revelation of secret information — cannot be proved, and the prosecutor manages to save face by charging the target of the investigation with perjury. I thought that the Bush administration was foolish to try to discredit and out Valerie Plame; it was an overreaction with little to gain and much to lose. And, sure enough, they have lost. The president’s decision will drive his approval rating, already below 30% in a recent Newsweek poll, to previously unplumbed depths.
In commuting Libby’s sentence, Bush has done great harm to his party’s prospects to hold onto the White House, which weren’t that good to begin with. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, as I believe she will be, one of the arguments against her would have been the sleazy Clinton pardons, some of whose recipients were represented by her brothers. Now, that argument will only serve to remind voters of Bush and Scooter Libby. How ironic it is that Bush ran for president promising to restore honor and integrity to the White House, an unmistakeable indictment of the Clintons, and now the Democrats, and Hillary (if nominated) will be able to do the same to Bush. Is there anything left of the man we sent to Washington in 2000?