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By Jay Cost

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Will Bush Pardon Libby?

Will he? I honestly do not know. The actions of this White House are becoming increasingly difficult for me to predict.

But I would say that, as a purely political matter, Bush should not pardon Libby. The reason is that pardoning Libby would not bring Bush any benefits, and it would reinforce the perception among many that this White House is insular and inept. This could be costly for him.

If this were the end of the Bush term, a pardon would be politically costless. However, this is not the end of the term. Bush is not even a lame duck, despite his low poll numbers. He still has a major political battle forthcoming in the Fall, i.e. the issue of funding the Iraq War. Bush needs to position himself as well as he is able to induce the Congress to adopt his preferred course of action. It will not just be a matter of General Petraeus reporting good news (if he indeed reports good news). Bush will also have to sell this news. Pardoning Libby would, I think anyway, diminish his capacity to do this. After all, the Libby affair is part-and-parcel of the national Iraq debate; his political opponents argue that it is a metaphor for how this administration initiated and prosecuted this war. Pardoning Libby would give them a fresh way to rephrase their argument - just in time for the next fight over the war. Thus, it would diminish his capacity to market his policy preferences on Iraq.

Well - one might say - this does not matter. The people who are convinced that Bush is hopelessly mired in cronyism will oppose him, anyway. This is true, but it does not mean that there are not moderate Democrats and Republicans who are on the fence about Iraq, who are indeed troubled by the run-up to and the prosecution of this war, but who could be persuaded to come along in the Fall. These are the legislators who can see the difference between the war in itself and Bush's prosecution of it.

This differentiation is difficult for many to make, and so the "equlibirum" of these legislators is not incredibly stable. It seems to me that it is possible that they could become so disenchanted with Bush that they abandon the war effort altogether. This is what has happened already with a large number of legislators, mostly in the Democratic caucus. But - as we have seen in this session of Congress - there are still enough legislators left who can see a difference, and who can therefore be induced to support the President. Pardoning Libby runs the risk of alienating this group of legislators. These legislators are deeply disappointed with Bush's prosecution of the war; if he gives them more reasons to be disappointed, that may tip them to Bush's opponents, regardless of what Petraeus reports.

I am not saying that this is what will happen if Bush pardons Libby. I am not saying that pardoning Libby will dissolve Bush's coalition. I am saying that it could damage the fragile, and shrinking, congressional bloc that Bush has left. And so, my point: why risk it? Because I. Scooter Libby may have been dealt an injustice that may eventually be identified and corrected by the courts? Is that worth the risk?

-Jay Cost