Bush's approval ratings are in the toilet. And there's no good news for the GOP in sight. So why would the president decide to commute the sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of obstructing justice, perjury, and making false statements in the Plamegate affair, now and not at the end of his term, when everybody expected it? After all a Cable News Network/Opinion Research survey conducted after Libby's March 6 conviction found that 69% of voters are against a pardon (though commuting is only perhaps a first step toward that); only 18% were in favor of a pardon.
The answer seems to be that the base demanded it. As Edwin Chen of Bloomberg News notes:
At the same time, a pro-Libby firestorm was being fanned by self-described conservative bloggers and talk-radio hosts, and many conservative leaders asked the president to step in. Until now Bush had stayed out of the case, with his aides saying he would let the appeal go forward. Libby's supporters argued that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was over-zealous in prosecuting Libby for lying to investigators when no one was charged over the actual leak of Plame's status as a Central Intelligence Agency official.
But the mistake Bush is making is confusing his real base, i.e. ordinary Americans (Republicans must compose a good chunk of that aforementioned 69%), with the Bill Kristol basepundits, who, on either side of the aisle, tend to gin up issues that make for good debate on CrossFire.
Do most even super rabid conservatives out in the heartland care if Scooter Libby does 2 years in jail? I doubt it. But they might care that he doesn't. People don't like when powerful people help their friends escape justice. Just another millstone Bush is piling on the Republican candidates that would like to succeed him.
Update: Lifted from Rolling Stone's National Affairs blog, the actual text of the clemency:
Grant of Executive Clemency
A Proclamation by the President of the United States of America
WHEREAS Lewis Libby was convicted in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in the case United States v. Libby, Crim. No. 05-394 (RBW), for which a sentence of 30 months' imprisonment, 2 years' supervised release, a fine of $250,000, and a special assessment of $400 was imposed on June 22, 2007;
NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, pursuant to my powers under Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, do hereby commute the prison terms imposed by the sentence upon the said Lewis Libby to expire immediately, leaving intact and in effect the two-year term of supervised release, with all its conditions, and all other components of the sentence.
IN WITNESS THEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this second day of July, in the year of our Lord two thousand and seven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-first.
GEORGE W. BUSH
Bush's full statement to the press after the jump.