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.
The United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today rejected Lewis Libby's request to remain free on bail while pursuing his appeals for the serious convictions of perjury and obstruction of justice. As a result, Mr. Libby will be required to turn himself over to the Bureau of Prisons to begin serving his prison sentence.
I have said throughout this process that it would not be appropriate to comment or intervene in this case until Mr. Libby's appeals have been exhausted. But with the denial of bail being upheld and incarceration imminent, I believe it is now important to react to that decision.
From the very beginning of the investigation into the leaking of Valerie Plame's name, I made it clear to the White House staff and anyone serving in my administration that I expected full cooperation with the Justice Department. Dozens of White House staff and administration officials dutifully cooperated.
After the investigation was under way, the Justice Department appointed United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald as a Special Counsel in charge of the case. Mr. Fitzgerald is a highly qualified, professional prosecutor who carried out his responsibilities as charged.
This case has generated significant commentary and debate. Critics of the investigation have argued that a special counsel should not have been appointed, nor should the investigation have been pursued after the Justice Department learned who leaked Ms. Plame's name to columnist Robert Novak. Furthermore, the critics point out that neither Mr. Libby nor anyone else has been charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act or the Espionage Act, which were the original subjects of the investigation. Finally, critics say the punishment does not fit the crime: Mr. Libby was a first-time offender with years of exceptional public service and was handed a harsh sentence based in part on allegations never presented to the jury.
Others point out that a jury of citizens weighed all the evidence and listened to all the testimony and found Mr. Libby guilty of perjury and obstructing justice. They argue, correctly, that our entire system of justice relies on people telling the truth. And if a person does not tell the truth, particularly if he serves in government and holds the public trust, he must be held accountable. They say that had Mr. Libby only told the truth, he would have never been indicted in the first place.
Both critics and defenders of this investigation have made important points. I have made my own evaluation. In preparing for the decision I am announcing today, I have carefully weighed these arguments and the circumstances surrounding this case.
Mr. Libby was sentenced to thirty months of prison, two years of probation, and a $250,000 fine. In making the sentencing decision, the district court rejected the advice of the probation office, which recommended a lesser sentence and the consideration of factors that could have led to a sentence of home confinement or probation.
I respect the jury's verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison.
My decision to commute his prison sentence leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby. The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged. His wife and young children have also suffered immensely. He will remain on probation. The significant fines imposed by the judge will remain in effect. The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant, and private citizen will be long-lasting.
The Constitution gives the President the power of clemency to be used when he deems it to be warranted. It is my judgment that a commutation of the prison term in Mr. Libby's case is an appropriate exercise of this power.