The problem with TVD’s assessment is that it isn’t with Democrats and Independents that Bush is losing support. He never had much Democrat support once the glow of 9/11 wore off, and Independents have been going south for quite some time. And there is nothing he can do at this point to win back any of these people. No, it is shrinking support among Republicans and the conservative base that has brought his approval ratings to historic lows.
To let Mr. Libby go to prison would not only not win back Democrats and Independents, it would have put another nail in the coffin for conservatives. Yet as Robert Novak argues (here and here), commuting Libby’s sentence doesn’t completely satisfy his conservative supporters and still drives Democrats mad. He may as well have gone all the way and just pardoned him now. But Novak makes a very interesting case for what he calls this “strange administration.”
This whole sorry episode gets at the personality of this president, which Novak does a good job of capturing.
That (the commuting of the sentence) might be described as a Solomonic decision, but only if King Solomon actually split the baby and distributed halves to rival mothers. Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who called the president's conduct "disgraceful," would not have been any more upset by an outright pardon. While friends of Libby toasted champagne Monday night, they complained there was no pardon. It was an unsatisfying performance as an unhappy presidency nears its end, with Bush again standing aloof from the passion he has stirred.
Fierce Democratic critics seeking to criminalize Bush's military intervention three years ago seized on the Valerie Plame case. In his harsh reaction Monday, Reid described Libby as part of "White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war." The president and his political advisers always have seemed oblivious to this intense campaign against him. The White House attitude that what we don't know won't hurt us resulted in Bush pointing with pride to the appointment as special counsel of Patrick Fitzgerald, the non-partisan U.S. attorney in Chicago. At that point, Bush lost control of a case that his enemies seized on as a serious threat to his presidency.
What this points out, contrary to the left’s demonizing of Bush, is that he is just not a partisan guy. Liberals think he is the devil himself, a right-wing zealot bent on destroying America as we know it. But liberals have been divorced from reality for a long time. If the president had been a movement conservative and philosophically grounded in the principles that it represents, many of the problems that brought him down would have never happened. (Of course, he may never have gotten elected either, so this is very much an academic discussion.)
We all remember the “new tone” Bush tried to bring to Washington way back when. It didn’t work, as we can see, but that attempt reflects Bush’s penchant for believing that he could transcend partisan politics. You can see him thinking, “If only people will realize that my intentions are good, that I’m an honorable person, they will surely give me credit for . . .” Wrong. This is probably why, as Novak points out, that the president was oblivious to what his enemies were really trying to do to him and his administration. He was going to stand above it all. Wrong again.
So he lets a special prosecutor be appointed to basically harass his own administration. It was a travesty, and all the while Bush thinks he’s getting political points for allowing Fitzgerald almost unlimited power to uncover a crime he knew never happened. You think Bill Clinton would have ever allowed this to happen? I may despise the man and his politics, but he had the game down pat. But it’s just not in Bush’s nature, and he is suffering for it.