Scooter Who?

How Bush will deal with the Libby indictment.

Download MP3 audio of John Dickerson discussing the Libby indictment with a panel of Slate writers, or sign up to get all of Slate’s free daily podcasts.

Just a minor incident? 
        Click image to expand.
Just a minor incident?

Scooter who? You may remember how George Bush’s friendship with Enron chairman Ken Lay evaporated when the energy company came under investigation. That looks likely to happen with Scooter Libby. Libby has resigned. Vice President Cheney has vouched for his patriotism and talents. And now the White House will attempt to change the subject.

Will that strategy work? White House aides saw how badly it went for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, last week when she referred to the kind of indictments that have now been handed down as a “perjury technicality” and got slammed as a hypocrite. They don’t want to repeat that. What may be slightly more effective is taking a page from the Clinton playbook by looking as busy as possible in the midst of scandal. Bush will keep “doing the people’s business,” visiting hurricane-damaged areas and talking about the war on terror. Already, officials are trying to make the case that the scandal is a minor political incident. “Is it going to matter in a year?” asks a Bush adviser. “Not likely. What is going to matter in the midterms? Iraq and spending and immigration. This does not affect that.”

But as Bush plays down the scandal, he may be undermined by the kind of conservatives who recently pulled down Harriet Miers, and who may try to lead a more assertive political response. Karl Rove would prefer they stay quiet. He’d like it to become accepted wisdom that since Fitzgerald didn’t indict him today, he’s in the clear. Rove and his allies would like Patrick Fitzgerald’s 22-month investigation to become known as the Scooter Libby affair. Cheney, whose natural instinct would be to lash out at the prosecutor, is extremely unlikely to do so, given that the criminal investigation centered around his office is ongoing.

Fitzgerald: not done yet 
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Fitzgerald: not done yet 

But will conservatives who revere the vice president and the hawkish worldview Libby was promoting go along? Many are instinctively inclined to rally around Libby the way they did around Oliver North during the Iran-Contra affair. Instead of seeing the evidence of Libby’s perjury, obstruction of justice, and false statements as efforts to protect his own skin, they’ll decry the “criminalization of politics,” and frame his actions in a patriotic narrative: Whatever lines Libby may have crossed, he was acting in the service of two noble goals. He was protecting his boss and defending the case for the war against Saddam Hussein. Supporters regard Libby’s obsession with refuting Joe Wilson as proper. They see him as merely fighting back against a partisan Democrat who lied about his mission and his findings.

Whether this line will play with the public the way North’s good-solider act did remains to be seen. Scooter is no Ollie. He’s shy and evidently sane and doesn’t wear a uniform. He also won’t have the public stage of congressional hearings that North did to make his case. But conservatives may cast him in that role anyway. The Miers pick was a symbol of what much of the “base” sees as a general flabbiness at the White House. They think Bush shrank from a fight by nominating a tepid nominee who could pass liberal muster. They’ll be watching to see if he shrinks again by shirking Libby.

And even if Republicans decide not to embrace Scooter as a martyr, Democrats are hardly going to ignore the issue. They’re intent on using the indictments as a way to relitigate the case against an increasingly disastrous and unpopular war.

It would have been better for the White House in some ways if Patrick Fitzgerald had indicted Rove but not extended his inquiry. After 22 months of having to say “no comment,” they were looking forward to being able to start spinning and managing the crisis. Now they have the stabbing political pain of an indictment plus the long-term ache of an ongoing investigation.