A Defining Choice for The GOP
The argument among Republicans over whether President Bush should grant Scooter Libby a quick pardon amounts to a battle between the past and the future.While Scooter may be the only one threatened with jail it was the world view of the neocon war hawks that was on trial. It's not surprising that they are the ones demanding that Scooter not see the inside of a cell.
The Republicans most eager to end the Libby case immediately are those who were most deeply invested in the Iraq war and were willing to do whatever was expedient to commit American troops to a venture they were certain would turn out well.
The Libby case put their generation on trial, to use Alistair Cooke's evocative phrase about a very different trial in an earlier age. The verdict against Libby was a verdict against them.
But for those who advocated hard for the war, what matters is that Libby loyally did all he could to advance the effort and push back against its critics.While Bush may face a dilemma...
It was thus not surprising that one of the most ferocious calls for an immediate pardon came from William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and one of the staunchest supporters of the Iraq invasion.
Responding to a White House statement that the president was, for the moment, declining to intervene in the case, Kristol declared: "For President Bush, loyalty is apparently a one-way street; decency is something he's for as long as he doesn't have to take any risks in its behalf; and courage -- well, that's nowhere to be seen. Many of us used to respect President Bush. Can one respect him still?"
Kristol's sharpness underscored the tribulations that Bush will face if Libby is required to go to prison while his appeal is pending. If Bush blocks prison time for Libby, either through a pardon or by commuting his sentence, the action would amount to the repudiation of a jury verdict -- as well as the decisions of federal Judge Reggie Walton, one of the president's appointees. Commuting Libby's sentence would not, as some have suggested, be a happy compromise because doing so would still involve setting aside a formal punishment on behalf of an administration favorite.
Yet if Bush allows Libby to go to prison, he will alienate his dwindling band of supporters, particularly those most vociferous in standing up for the administration's Iraq policies.It is an even greater dilemma for the Republicans trying to get the Presidential nomination. To win that nomination they need the pro war necons but by supporting a pardon they risk alienating the majority of the voters in the general election.
That's why the leading GOP candidates ducked the pardon question at their debate this week, though in revealing ways. John McCain was crisp ("He's going through an appeal process. We've got to see what happens here."), while Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney offered rambling responses aimed at sounding pro-Libby without committing themselves.
Fred Thompson, who many conservatives hope will enter the race, has been a leader of Libby's legal defense fund. Perhaps ironically for the man who plays a prosecutor on "Law & Order," Thompson has unequivocally endorsed a pardon.
Thompson's clarity may pressure other Republicans to support a pardon -- Giuliani seemed almost there during the debate -- but their decisions would come at a high cost. At times, a single legal case can come to embody an entire controversy, even an entire era. To support pardoning Scooter Libby has come to mean endorsing an approach to politics and a way of governing that most Americans have come to reject.