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Bush had little to lose, points to score with conservatives

Times Staff Writer

With his decision to keep I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby from going to prison, President Bush has provoked a firestorm of controversy but avoided what might have been even more damaging to his presidency: defections of Republican loyalists who are among the last to support the beleaguered White House.

Libby’s fate had become a cause celebre among conservative GOP activists, even as the public overwhelmingly opposed a presidential pardon.

Bush’s action shows that, with a little more than 18 months remaining in his second term and his influence at its lowest ebb, he is still willing to rely on his signature leadership style -- one that risks polarizing the country to take stands that satisfy his conservative base.

After the Republican rout in the 2006 midterm elections, Bush gave signs that he might try a more pragmatic, centrist approach. But his main attempt to do so -- backing a bipartisan bill to overhaul immigration law -- ended in a spectacular failure when the bill died in the Senate last week. And the immigration debate had badly strained Bush’s relationship with conservatives, who were furious that he supported a bill they believed would allow amnesty for illegal immigrants.

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“He’s playing to his base,” said Fred I. Greenstein, a political scientist at Princeton University. “He’s sort of retreating to his hard disk -- his core beliefs.”

A CNN poll found that 72% opposed a presidential pardon, and 19% supported it. But many analysts say that Bush had little to lose and much to gain politically by siding with the minority view. Bush chose to commute Libby’s 30-month jail sentence, but did not pardon him.

“He won’t antagonize anyone who didn’t already hate him, and he will give solace and encouragement to the people who like him but are having doubts about his resolve,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

Among the encouraged was Eddie Mahe, a former Republican National Committee official, who said, “I shot my fist in the sky and said, “Yay!’ ”

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But for Bush critics, the decision ratified their view that the administration was riddled with hubris. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the White House decision “is just the latest example of their belief that the Bush administration is above the law.”

Although the reaction was emotional and charged, Bush’s own language was tempered as he portrayed his decision not to grant Libby a full pardon as an effort to strike a middle course.

Libby still faces two years of probation and a $250,000 fine.

Bush’s decision is not likely to be a defining moment for his presidency the way President Ford’s term in office was irrevocably linked to his decision to pardon Richard Nixon for crimes in connection with the Watergate scandal.

But it may be a moment that presages the tone for the rest of Bush’s term.

On this and other issues, Bush has signaled that he will remain combative and fiercely loyal to his lieutenants until he leaves the Oval Office.

He has refused to bow to controversy over Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and force his longtime friend out of his post -- even though fellow Republicans are calling for him to leave.

And on Iraq, Bush is sticking with familiar arguments for keeping U.S. troops deployed, and betrays no sign that his own party is in turmoil over the war and its ranks are beginning to break.

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“He sticks to his guns because of his commitment to a notion of leadership that says leaders don’t waiver,” said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist who has followed Bush’s career.

The Libby case has especially broad political ramifications because it is linked to the administration’s rationale for going to war in Iraq: Libby has been convicted of lying in an investigation into who blew the cover of a CIA officer whose husband had disputed the administration’s contentions.

Some Republicans argue that much is at stake for the party as a whole if Libby continues to be a topic roiling the 2008 presidential debate.

Candidates from both parties have been asked at presidential debates whether they believed Libby should be pardoned.

The Democratic National Committee responded to Bush’s announcement by pointing out how many GOP presidential hopefuls supported pardoning Libby -- including former Sen. Fred Thompson, who headed a legal defense fund for Libby.

“The notion of stringing this out into the 2008 election is incredibly destructive to the Republican Party,” said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a GOP lobbyist close to the White House who had favored a full pardon to put the issue to rest. “It brings our focus back to the past and to things people don’t like about the Bush administration. We don’t need that.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who at one recent candidate forum dodged the question of whether she believed Libby should be pardoned, made plain that Democrats would not let GOP candidates forget the issue.

“Four years into the Iraq war, Americans are still living with the consequences of this White House’s efforts to quell dissent,” said Clinton, whose husband ended his presidency by granting a spate of pardons that stirred controversy.

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“This commutation sends the clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice,” she said.

janet.hook@latimes.com

Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Voices

‘President Bush did the right thing today in commuting the prison term for Scooter Libby. The prison sentence was overly harsh and the punishment did not fit the crime.’

--HOUSE MINORITY WHIP ROY BLUNT (R-MO.)

*

‘This decision to commute the sentence of a man who compromised our national security cements the legacy of an administration characterized by a politics of cynicism and division, one that has consistently placed itself and its ideology above the law.’

--SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-ILL.)

Presidential candidate

*

‘Scooter Libby did not deserve to go to prison, and I’m glad the president had the

courage to do this.’

--FORMER AMBASSADOR RICHARD CARLSON

Helped raise millions for Libby’s defense fund

*

‘The president’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence does not serve justice, condones criminal conduct, and is a betrayal of trust of the American people.’

--HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI

(D-San Francisco)

*

‘I am very happy for Scooter Libby. This will allow a good American, who has done a lot for his country, to resume his life.’

--FORMER SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R-TENN.)

Potential presidential candidate

*

‘Today’s decision is yet another example that this administration simply considers itself above the law. . . . This commutation sends the clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice.’

--SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-N.Y.)

Presidential candidate

*

‘After evaluating the facts, the president came to a reasonable decision, and I believe the decision was correct.’

--FORMER NEW YORK MAYOR RUDOLPH W. GIULIANI

GOP presidential candidate

*

‘When it comes to the law, there should not be two sets of rules, -- one for President Bush and Vice President Cheney and another for the rest of America. Even Paris Hilton had to go to jail. No one in this administration should be above the law.’

--SEN. RICHARD J. DURBIN (D-ILL.)


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