Friday, July 6, 2007

Backing Out or Backing In?

George Bush’s commutation of Louie “the Scooter” Libby’s perjury conviction is sufficiently egregious that the House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings about it next week. Whether it was Bush himself or his evil demon Cheney who is to blame, the move epitomizes the administration’s style of governance. It is brazen and arrogant and, in spirit, if not in a strictly technical sense, lawless. It is also incompetent. First, commuting Libby’s sentence on the grounds that forcing him to serve time in prison would be “excessive” punishment -- given the nature of his crime, his career in “government service,” and the effects on the well-being of his family -- is in plain contradiction with the policy of the Bush-Gonzales Justice Department to insist on mandatory sentencing, regardless of mitigating, or allegedly mitigating, circumstances. Second, it is a transparently bogus effort on Bush’s part to insist that someone whom he concedes did wrong will be punished. Bush claimed that Libby would be punished enough by paying a $250,000 fine and by spending two years on probation. The fine is already paid; at this point, it is unclear where the money came from. Either it came from his wealthy right-wing supporters or, if he paid it himself, given how easily and swiftly he produced the check, the fine was only a slap on the wrist. Worse still for Bush, it seems that it is legally impossible to be on probation without having served prison time. Had the Scooter gone to jail for even a day, Bush could have kept him on probation without any problem. Then perhaps he could have still made a case that a fair punishment was meted out, though only the willingly gullible would have believed it. Now, for the Scooter to go on probation, the only hope Bush has is to get his lawyers to convince the judge, Reggie Walton, that probation is indeed possible. It’s unlikely he will succeed; though a Reagan appointee, Walton does seem be a person of integrity who respects the law. Should it become clear to everyone that Libby is not being punished, then his supporters, like Fred Thompon, will have a point: why keep the taint of a conviction hanging over him? Why not just pardon him outright? Of course, that will mean that, should Democrats in Congress have the will, the Scooter could be subpoened and compelled to testify (inasmuch as he could no longer incriminate himself and therefore no longer take the Fifth). Since there is good reason to think that he can incriminate Cheney and Bush, there is every reason to conjecture that this is just what Cheney and Bush hoped to avoid.

Thus there is much the Judiciary Committee can probe, and it is almost inconceivable, should they do their work, that they will not effectively document impeachable offenses. As we know too well, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that impeachment is “off the table,” and the pelosiites in her party have so far backed her up. [On the concept of pelosiism, see “Pelosiism: the Highest Stage of Clintonism,” May 28.] However, so far, three Judiciary Committee members – Waters, Ellison and Johnson – have refused to go along; they’ve agreed to co-sponsor House Resolution 333, calling for the impeachment [first] of Dick Cheney. [See “Cheney to the Rescue?” July 1.] So far, Committee chairman John Conyers and the rest of the Democrats on the Committee, some of whom claim to be “progressives,” have stayed within the Pelosian fold. Will they be able to remain there as their committee, a legally competent body, develops overwhelming evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors”? Thanks to Cheney and Bush, there is a glimmer of hope now that they will not. However much they may want to back out of their Constitutional duties, maybe, just maybe, they’ll find themselves unable not to back in.

One thing at least is clear. Should the Democrats find it within themselves to do the right thing despite themselves, they will have more than ample political cover. It has gotten to the point that Keith Olbermann can call for Bush’s and Cheney’s resignation on his July 3 MSNBC “Countdown” program; that Hedrick Herzberg can castigate Cheney and Bush in the July 9 New Yorker in terms that, even months ago, no left-wing critic would have dared; and that Comedy Central on the Fourth of July could play three consecutive episodes of “L’il Bush.” Come on Nancy! This isn’t like hinting, even obliquely, that maybe the U.S. shouldn’t hand the Israeli government a blank check and shouldn’t place itself at its service. This is no “profile in courage.” The vast majority of Americans would be behind you if you were to allow impeachment back on the table. Remember too: it’s not a moot issue. The inauguration is still a year and a half away. Cheney and Bush have made themselves toast, morally and politically, but think what harm those dreadful wounded miscreants can still do!

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