Keeping Karl Rove on the hot seat

The Roberts nomination knocked Plamegate off the front page. The Democrats are trying to get it back there.

Published July 20, 2005 9:52PM (EDT)

The Bush plan has worked -- for now. By announcing his Supreme Court pick Tuesday night, the president managed to drown out the drumbeats on Karl Rove and the Valerie Plame investigation. As Newsweek notes, roughly 85 percent of the questions put to Scott McClellan at Monday's White House press briefing concerned Rove and the leak investigation. At Tuesday morning's press gaggle, McClellan got just two.

But does it matter? And will it last?

Bush plainly needed to shake things up. Plamegate was becoming the central fact of life in Washington, and the president's poll numbers were going down with it. A new Pew Research Center poll has Bush's reputation for honesty fading fast, and Gallup says his approval ratings, on a quarterly basis, have reached an all-time low. "If the economy were doing better, the Iraq war wasn't as tenuous and people weren't as uneasy about terrorism, then they might be willing to cut Bush some slack on the Rove issue," Robert Shapiro, who specializes in public opinion at Columbia University, tells the Associated Press. "And it's all tied back to how the war was justified, so it raises all those issues as well."

Those poll numbers matter. Some presidents succeed through the popularity of their political agendas; for Bush, whose agenda isn't particularly popular with voters, it has always been about his own personal popularity. If Americans begin to dislike the president, if they don't think he's someone they can trust, then it's harder for him to sell his legislative agenda and harder for him to vouch for his nominees -- "he's got a good heart" -- himself.

So maybe the John Roberts nomination changes the subject and stops the slide. Bush gets to look presidential -- hey, look, he's appointing a Supreme Court justice! -- and his people get to talk for a while about something other than investigations, indictments and the lies they may have told. But here's the thing: If Patrick Fitzgerald has got the goods on anybody -- and would he still be going at it if he didn't? -- Bush's break from the bad news won't last forever. Whether Bush names one Supreme Court justice or nine, Fitzgerald is going to do what he's going to do, and either there's going to be an indictment or there isn't. If Fitzgerald believes that a crime was committed, he's going to do something about it. And if he does anything about it, we're all going to be hearing about it for a very long time to come.

How long does the respite last in the meantime? We should know more by the time the grand jury wraps up its term this fall, but it could be sooner, too. Fitzgerald has been saying for some time now that his investigation is basically over but for the testimony of Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller; he's got Cooper's now, and he probably understands now that he'll never have Miller's. So it could be soon, or it could be later -- it's possible for Fitzgerald and the grand jury to seek a six-month extension of the grand jury's term.

In the meantime, the challenge for the Democrats and other administration critics is to keep Bush weakened by keeping the Plame story in the public eye. They're trying. Just because there's no hard news to report, that doesn't mean that the story can't be kept alive on the Sunday shows and the pundit roundtables: How long did the right milk the accusations of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? And so we see things like the letter that went to Congress this week from a group of former CIA employees who ask for an end to "the campaign of disparagement and innuendo aimed at discrediting" Plame and her husband, Joseph Wilson. They wrote: "The disclosure of Ms. Plames name was a shameful event in American history and, in our professional judgment, may have damaged U.S. national security and poses a threat to the ability of U.S. intelligence gathering using human sources."

We see Sen. Barbara Boxer issuing a statement today that draws a parallel between Bush's handling of allegations about Rove and Richard Nixon's handling of allegations about Watergate. And on Friday, we'll see Rep. Henry Waxman and Sen. Byron Dorgan hold a hearing -- unofficial, because the Republicans who control both houses wouldn't allow anything official -- "to examine the national security implications of disclosing the identity of a covert intelligence officer."

The drumbeat is a little quieter now, but it's not going away.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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