WASHINGTON -- Just when it seemed George W. Bush's sinking prestige with his Republican base had bottomed out, his stock there hit new lows last week. The president's seeming indifference to the sentencing of Scooter Libby was bad enough. It coincided with Bush's apparent determination to retain his friend Alberto Gonzales as attorney general against congressional pressure to depose him.
Prevailing opinion of the Republican Party's officeholders, contributors and activists could not differ more from President Bush's posture. They regard Libby as a valuable public servant who faces serious prison time, thanks to prosecutorial abuse made possible by Bush administration decisions, with no imminent presidential pardon. They see Gonzales as an embarrassment to the party who presides over a hollow Justice Department, while presidential staffers search for Senate votes to block a no-confidence motion.
The Gonzales-Libby equation is symbolic of Republican discontent with their president. He failed totally to narrow the party's internal gap over his immigration reform. Time is running out -- to less than three months -- on Republican forbearance for Iraq. In the closing months of the administration, key posts are unfilled and what old hands call "children" fill others. Facing multiple investigations, Bush aides without personal fortunes are threatened by daunting legal fees.
The treatment of Lewis Libby, once Vice President Dick Cheney's influential chief of staff, enrages Bush's fellow Republicans far more than their public utterances suggest. The president's studied distance from the CIA leak case led to appointment of a special prosecutor by then Deputy Atty. Gen. James Comey at a time when he already knew the leaker's identity. That distance has continued with Bush's response from Europe to Libby's conviction, filtered through a deputy press secretary, emphasizing that he had no intention to pardon Libby.