Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Weakly Standard

Okay -- let's talk about Karl Rove.

One of the things that has gotten everyone in a tizzy over the last couple of days is Bush's new standard for Rove's termination -- specifically:
If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration.
This is, of course, quite different from his former assertions, that anyone involved in the leak would be terminated. So, on one level, I'm happy to see that this departure has not gone unnoticed.

However, on another level, I'm not sure that I would spend too much time harping on this issue. I say this for a couple of reasons.

First, while this allows us to score a few cheap political points against Bush, it is extremely unlikely to amount to anything. Bush certainly isn't going to be shamed into honoring his original position and few converts will be acquired in the process of highlighting his hypocrisy. This is no more than a Democratic "feel-good" moment. And while it feels good, I think we would all be better served with something a little more lasting.

Second, is far from clear to me whether or not Rove's removal benefits Democrats at this point. Usually when a presidential appointee steps down for the mere appearance of impropriety, the real motivator for it is practical and not ethical. It is done to avoid tarnishing the administration at large and, in so, derailing the agenda. In this case, the smart play was clearly for Bush to can Rove once it became clear that he was involved. Of course, Bush is far too stubborn for that -- and this time it works to our advantage. The longer he sits on this rotten egg, the more thoroughly its stink permeates through the entire administration. They will have to spend more time playing defense and will have less energy left to push through controversial policy initiatives. Ultimately, it means the administration will be weaker. So, it isn't how I would play it, but if George wants to tie his presidency to a sinking anchor, far be it from me to stand in his way.

Lastly, the "commission of a crime" standard has been, I feel, incorrectly portrayed as a difficult threshold to achieve. Now, if Bush had set the standard at "conviction of a crime", or even at "indictment", I would agree. But, he did no such thing.

You see, as we all recall from civics class, a criminal conviction requires proof "beyond a shadow of a doubt." This high burden of proof exists because we want to be certain that no questions of guilt exist before we allow the state to deprive an individual of liberty or property. However, from a practical standpoint, this means that "not guilty" verdicts are not interchangeable with factual innocence. Without a doubt, many who receive a "not guilty" verdict have actually committed the crime in question, but the state was unable to demonstrate that fact to the level of certainty required by law. To a lesser degree, the same thing is true with respect to indictments. While it is said that a prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich, in the real world prosecutors rarely seek indictments unless they strongly believe that they will eventually be able to achieve a conviction. The absurdly high conviction rates of most prosecutors demonstrate how accurately they are able to gauge the strength of their cases.

On the other hand, factual guilt is an entirely different question -- a point raised by "law and order" pundits every time a supposedly guilty man goes free. And, unless Bush revises his position further, that's the standard currently on the table. Therefore, if Fitzgerald decides against seeking an indictment, but presents ample evidence that the crime likely took place, that should be enough to require Rove's termination.

Of course, Bush will, in the end, likely attempt to claim that a non-indictment is akin to exoneration. But, depending on the character of Fitzgerald's final report, that may be a tough sell. This will be especially true if Rove continues to stink up the joint for the next couple of months. After weeks of headlines and damaging leaks, anything less than a mea culpa from the special prosecutor will send Karl to the bench. And that would be fine with me.

So, for now, let's just let them all twist in the wind. They have more than enough rope to hang themselves and I wouldn't want to do anything to slow them down.
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