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Hot Story: Woe is Bush

Beltway Boys

FRED BARNES, "WEEKLY STANDARD": Coming up on "The Beltway Boys," the Scooter Libby conviction adds to President Bush's second-term slump. We'll tell you if he can turn it around.

MORT KONDRACKE, "ROLL CALL": Democrats unveil a new plan to bind the president's hands on Iraq. But the anti-war left is still complaining.

BARNES: A prominent evangelical takes aim at Rudy Giuliani. We'll tell you how his honor's (ph) past is coming back to haunt him.

KONDRACKE: And what's really behind Newt Gingrich's Jimmy Swaggart moment?

BARNES: That's all coming up on "The Beltway Boys." But first, the headlines.

(NEWSBREAK)

BARNES: I'm Fred Barnes.

KONDRACKE: And I'm Mort Kondracke, and we're "The Beltway Boys."

Well, the "Hot Story" of the week is "Woe Is Bush." The pall that hangs over the Bush administration, obviously, is - has mostly to do with the failure to win in the Iraq. But lately, there's a bunch of other troubles that are besetting him. And the first in line is the Scooter Libby conviction, and the Democrats are trying to make the most of it.

Here's what Harry Reid had to say about it: quote - "It's about time someone in the Bush administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics. Lewis Libby has been convicted of perjury, but his trial reveals deeper truths about Vice President Cheney's role in this sordid affair. Now President Bush must pledge not to pardon Libby for his criminal conduct."

Now there's going to be at least one congressional investigation conducted by Henry Waxman of - of California into this whole thing, trying to prove - trying to penetrate the quote - unquote - "cloud over Dick Cheney" or around Dick Cheney. And Waxman is going to have as his star witness next Friday Valerie Plame, the woman whose - whose name was revealed as the - sort of this - the trigger to the - to the whole scandal.

Now my theory about this is that special prosecutor Fitzgerald new full well, of course, that - that the original Bob Novak leak of Plame's name was the State Department and not from the White House, but that Fitzgerald was pursuing a possible separate conspiracy run out of the White House, maybe out of Cheney's office, to - to expose Valerie Plame. And that's how he got into the - to the Scooter Libby line of - of inquiry. And that's what the Democrats will go at.

BARNES: Well, you know what? He didn't find this separate campaign to go after Valerie Plame or her husband, Joe Wilson, who had falsely made claims about the White House.

Now look, I don't think this whole thing is a problem for Bush at all. I don't think it's a problem for Cheney. I don't think there's a cloud over Cheney at all. If - and - and look, Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, Mort, actually interviewed Cheney and everybody else at the White House. He didn't find any evidence at all of this so-called conspiracy or campaign led by Cheney. So he ought to completely let go of that.

If there's a cloud over anybody, it's over Fitzgerald himself, for having pursued this very, very marginal prosecution against Scooter Libby. And - and all that stuff that Harry Reid, that was totally nonsense. I don't even know what he was talking about. He's in some parallel universe.

This was about an individual set of crimes that Scooter Libby was convicted of. He wasn't convicted of any institutional crime. There was no White House crime here at all.

KONDRACKE: Yes.

OK, second political headache for President Bush: the Walter Reed Army Hospital scandal, which is actually a -- more of an outpatient scandal than a - than an inpatient scandal, because the troops do get care.

But as I said last week, this is worse than Katrina in its incompetence and with - without any state or local officials to - to - to partly blame for it. But at least, to Bush's credit, there were no, `You're doing a hell of a job, Brownie" moments connected with this. The minute it was exposed, people started getting fired. And there's going to be a big investigation commission appointed - that the president appointed Bob Dole and Donna Shalala that are going to get to the bottom and presumably improve, from top to bottom, the veterans' health care system.

BARNES: Mort, even you pointed out, just now why the Katrina analogy is so preposterous. Because in this one - I mean, the problem with Katrina, supposedly - I think the problem was you had a - a poor mayor and a bad governor in Louisiana - but the White House was accused of acting too slowly.

Here, as you pointed out, they acted swiftly. They really moved on this in a hurry, and - and - and they should get some credit for that, firing all kinds of people.

You're right about the - the inpatient care at - at Walter Reed is - is matchless, particularly dealing with these wounded soldiers who need artificial limbs. The outpatient, it's typical government health care. Bureaucratic - and it's inexcusable in this case, but it shouldn't be surprising.

KONDRACKE: Well, inexcusable and Katrinaesque.

OK, and there's the hubbub surrounding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Critics say that it has more to do with politics than performance - Democratic critics.

Now these attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. They are presidential appointees. He can fire them - fire them whenever they want to. And as you pointed out to me, Bill Clinton, when he became president, fired every single U.S. attorney in the entire country, regardless of what important investigation or case that they - they might have been working on.

I think there's only one out of these eight that even merits an inquiry, and that's the one in New Mexico, where Senator Domenici and Heather Wilson may have intervened. And I think it's worth checking out.

BARNES: Look, I don't even think that one amounts to much. In that case, Pete Domenici, the senator, who's running for reelection next year, and Heather Wilson, who's a - obviously running for reelection every two years, called the U.S. attorney there to find out if an indictment was going to be handed up in a case involving a Democrat by Election Day.

Now the U.S. attorney didn't have to answer. I think he did. But he could have said, `Buzz off.' And - and if he felt intimidated or threatened by this - if he followed the rules, he would have immediately notified the Justice Department. Obviously, he didn't think it was very serious, because he didn't notify the Justice Department.

KONDRACKE: And then the latest thing is that there's a story that the FBI improperly and maybe in some cases illegally used the Patriot Act to secretly obtain personal information about American citizens. This has to do with national security letters.

Now despite what you would hear from - from Congress, that somehow the FBI is acting like the Gestapo here - the more you know about it, the more it looks like it's a cleric screw-up.

Now the FBI stumbles around about a lot of things, but there is no evidence that anybody was - was really injured by this, or that there was any particular malevolence involved.

BARNES: That's true, but, you know, the - you would think at the FBI, they would be sensitive to the Patriot Act, knowing there's been so much criticism of it, and there's been - the left-wing in America has fanned all these flames that Americans are being investigated. I mean, here's one area where they should have been so much more careful. I - I suspect you agree with that, and - and they obviously weren't.

My fear is this: that this could lead to the critics of these national-security letters using this - these offenses here - as unimportant as they may be - to try to eliminate these national-security letters, which are very important in terrorism cases.

KONDRACKE: Yes.

Well, the bottom line here, has to do with polls. You know I could not get through - through a program without - without some polls. But here's a - here's a look at President Bush's job-approval ratings over the last few weeks.

Real Clear Politics has his average at 34 percent. Now, bad as that is, it's not the lowest that a presidential approval rating has ever been. There you can see that Bush is hanging in. He's still beating his - his father, in fact, by five points.

BARNES: You know, you talked about woe with (INAUDIBLE), "a pall over the White House" and so on. You would be surprised, Mort, if you looked into it, as I have, the way this has affected - all these things we've mentioned, the way they have affected President Bush and his staff.

And the fact is, they remain upbeat. They remain optimistic, particularly about Iraq, where the President has said there would be progress.

The press just gets furious when they see Bush in public, particularly at press conference, acting all upbeat and vigorous and everything. They think he should be a broken man and he should act like a broken man. He's not a broken man at all, and - and his critics hate every minute when he's out in public not being broken.

KONDRACKE: Now listen, I was - I was talking to somebody who was a former White House official who was in the White House mess the day that Scooter Libby was - was convicted, that he said that - that it was - it was silent. Normally, there's a.

(CROSSTALK)

BARNES: They were saddened. He was a good friend there.

KONDRACKE: I think they're - I think there's some.

BARNES: Your point?

KONDRACKE: I - look, you can't have approval ratings as low as Bush's is with no end in sight without being worried at least.

BARNES: Well - yes, worried. But broken? Bush is upbeat and optimistic; so is the staff. Read my piece in "The Weekly Standard."

(CROSSTALK)

KONDRACKE: Oh, I will. I wouldn't miss it. I wouldn't miss it.

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