There's a hue and a cry in certain parts of the polity over the Congressional interest in President Bush's commutation of Lewis Libby's jail sentence. The basic theme: Libby deserved a pardon, not just a commutation, and Bush's action was clearly on the up-and-up. So Congress shouldn't investigate the matter, and if they do Bush should claim executive privilege and tell them to sod off.
Oh, and there are the claims of hypocrisy, seeing as how Clinton's rash of last-minute pardons barely raised any Democratic eyebrows.
That last charge has a ring of truth to it. Democrats often are loath to criticize a Democratic president, just as Republicans often are loath to criticize a Republican. They tend to express their opposition through lack of support, not active criticism. It's why divided government is a generally a good thing: neither party can be trusted to police itself.
That said, Clinton's pardons drew bipartisan criticism — particularly his pardon of Marc Rich, which hardly anybody defended. Likewise, even many Libby sympathizers think Bush was wrong to pardon him.
Starting with that similarity, let's compare the Libby case with the Rich case and see where we end up.
Bush: Commuted the sentence of a man convicted of lying to investigators looking into possible illegal actions in the White House, raising suspicions of a coverup and a pardon based on connections, not the facts of the case.
Clinton: Pardoned a fugitive whose wife was a major Democratic donor, raising suspicions of a "pardons for cash" deal and pardon based on connections, not the facts of the case.
Bush: Commuted Libby's sentence without consulting the Justice Department, the prosecutor in the case or going through normal channels.
Clinton: Pardoned Rich without consulting the Justice Department, the prosecutor in the case or going through normal channels.
Bush: Has claimed executive privilege to prevent subpoenaing of aides and documents.
Clinton: Waived executive privilege, allowing Congressional investigators to subpoena aides and documents.
Bush: Nearly silent on his reasoning for the commutation.
Clinton: Wrote a New York Times op-ed piece defending his pardon.
Bush: Faces the prospect of multiple hearings and press conferences from Congress over the commutation.
Clinton: Endured multiple Congressional hearings and press conferences over the pardon, culminating in a lengthy report from the House subcommittee chaired by Rep. Dan Burton.
Bush: No special prosecutor — yet.
Clinton: Endured an investigation from a special prosecutor, first Mary Jo White and then the ubiquitous James Comey, who eventually closed all the probes without seeking an indictment.
So what we have today is a Democratic Congress acting almost exactly like a Republican Congress did in 2001.
I had and have no problem with the Republican investigations of the Rich pardon. The special prosecutor was a little over the top, but the hearings and criticism were well-deserved. It was yet another personal low point for Clinton in an administration that had many of them. It was yet one more example of Clinton's split personality — so questionable personally, but so successful and popular on a policy and political level.
Similarly, though, I have no problem with the Democratic investigations of the Libby pardon. And I think Bush should follow Clinton's example and waive privilege in this case.
Bush himself, by the way, is laudably (if wrongly) consistent in this matter. He criticized the pardon in 2001, but didn't call for an investigation, saying Clinton had the right to do it. He later said it was "time to move on" — partly out of fear that the continuing probes would hamper passage of his own political agenda. Bush's other main motive: a desire to preserve and expand the power of the executive branch, something not helped by a Congress questioning an enumerated Constitutional power.