Among the least surprising developments arising from Monica Goodling's appearance before the House Judiciary Committee was the reflexive use of the "criminalization of politics" defense. Not by the witness, that is, but by Republican members of the committee themselves. That is to be expected. After all, whether the scandal involves Tom Delay, the outing of Valerie Plame, Jack Abramoff, or the U.S. attorneys purge, we can always count on the GOP to recast its rampant criminality as mere political disagreement.
On PBS Newhour last night, Republican California Congressman Dan Lundgren was only too happy to offer the criminalization of politics ruse for Monica Goodling and Alberto Gonzales alike. Just moments after acknowledging Goodling's admission of violating civil rules and Hatch Act prohibitions ("she did admit that she made mistakes in that regard"), Lundgren returned the script:
"Let me just say this -- and I think it's an important point -- there is too much of a tendency in this environment to try and criminalize political disputes. That's been the effort here. They have found no basis for criminality, so the suggestion is now a vote of no confidence. Who knows what is next?"
But it was Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) who beat Lundgren to the punch, defending Goodling in the opening moments of her testimony. Pence, who famously compared his March visit to a Baghdad market to shopping in his home state of Indiana, trotted out the tired GOP talking point for her:
"I'm listening very intently. I'm studying this case. And I want to explore this issue of illegal behavior with you. Because it seems to me so much of this -- and even something of what we've heard today in this otherwise cordial hearing -- is about the criminalization of politics. In a very real sense, it seems to be about the attempted criminalization of things that are vital to our constitutional system of government, namely the taking into consideration of politics in the appointment of political officials within the government."
Later that morning, of course, Monica Goodling admitted her own lawbreaking and suggested that Attorney General Gonzales may have obstructed justice in trying to coach her. Acknowledging that "I believe I crossed the line, but I didn't mean to", Goodling clarified for all why she sought immunity in the first place:
"I do acknowledge that I may have gone too far in asking political questions of applicants for career positions, and I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions, and I regret those mistakes."
So much for the claim of Jim Sensenbrenner that "There ain't no fish in this water."
GonzoGate, however, is far from the first use of the "criminalizing politics" defense by Republicans and their conservative amen corner. Consider the case of Tom Delay. As early as April 2005, a furious Delay declared of the ethic charges swirling around him, "Democrats have made clear that their only agenda is the politics of personal destruction and the criminalization of politics." Amazingly, that comment came before Delay's own October 2005 indictment in Texas for money laundering in association with his Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC).
Unsurprisingly, the conservative echo chamber rushed to Delay's defense and magnified his talking point. Days after Delay's indictment by District Attorney Ronnie Earle, Robert Novak penned a column titled "Criminalizing Politics", concluding:
'Democrats are ecstatic. The criminalization of politics may work, even if the case against DeLay is as threadbare as it looks."
No discussion of Robert Novak and the Republican redefinition of GOP crime as everyday political disagreements could be complete without a look the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. While neither Karl Rove nor others were ever charged with the technical and narrowly defined offense of revealing the identity of Valerie Plame to Robert Novak and others, Cheney chief-of-staff Scooter Libby was convicted by jury on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice. But for the familiar goose-steppers of the conservative ascendancy, Libby the felon too was a victim of the criminalization of politics.
The usual cavalcade of apologists for Republican law-breaking swarmed to Libby's defense. With his looming indictment in the fall of 2005, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison compared Libby to Martha Stewart, and offered a new variant of the Delay sound bite, the "perjury technicality." Hutchison said she hoped that:
"That if there is going to be an indictment that says something happened, that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn't indict on the crime and so they go to something just to show that their two years of investigation was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars."
Hutchison, of course, had plenty of company in offering the criminalization of politics canard in the CIA leak case. On October 14, 2005, Bill Kristol complained, "I am worried about what happens to the administration if Rove is indicted," adding, "I think it's the criminalization of politics that's really gotten totally out of hand." In succeeding days, Kristol's Fox News colleagues Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Stuart Varney and Chris Wallace joined the chorus singing from the RNC's criminalization of politics hymnal. On October 24th, Kristol took to the pages of the Weekly Standard to denounce a supposed Democratic strategy of "criminalizing conservatives." When Libby was later convicted, the Wall Street Journal editorial page called for a pardon. The WSJ cited grave dangers if the Libby verdict were to stand: "perhaps the worst precedent would be normalizing the criminalization of policy differences."
Things used to be different. There was a time when Republicans were able to place the national interest above partisan advantage. During Watergate, after all, it was Tennessee Republican Senator and later Reagan chief-of-staff Howard Baker who asked the defining question of all presidential scandals, "what did the president know and when did he know it." And it was Fred Thompson, then a Republican attorney for the Senate Watergate committee, who asked Nixon aide Alexander Butterield the question that unraveled the entire cover-up:
"Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?"
Fast forward 30 years. The "criminalization of politics" defense has an established arrow Republican quiver since the mid-1980's. And Fred Thompson? The Watergate hero and former Tennessee Senator will likely run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. And, oh yeah, Fred Thompson is on the advisory committee for the Scooter Libby Legal Defense Trust.