Verdict is Bush’s latest blemish

Much of what was argued in the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is lost on the American public. It was just so much inside-the-Beltway intrigue with famous faces telling different stories. It left people all over America thinking the whole lot was lying, as some jurors concluded. But one clear message did break through all the clutter and post-trial analysis, and that was the word “GUILTY.” Everyone knows what that means. However obscure or confusing the charges may have been, Scooter Libby has been judged guilty by a jury of his peers.

That’s just about the last word the administration needs to hear just now. President Bush faces his lowest ratings in history. His surge strategy, which administration officials almost daily claim is working, does not look like a success on television as the violence continues and the casualty numbers mount. This week we watched as a half-dozen former U.S. attorneys testified about the political pressures that forced them from office. And concern and anger continues to build over disclosures that Walter Reed Army Medical Center and possibly other treatment facilities cannot handle the injured troops coming home from Iraq and, in at least some cases, are providing little or no care due to bureaucratic red tape. An investigation led by such respected figures as former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Donna E. Shalala, former secretary of Health and Human Services, may well produce some important recommendations, but it will do little to dampen the anger of friends and family of thousands of Iraq war vets.

This is not a good time for President Bush and it is likely his numbers and his credibility will continue to slide. Americans are getting a clear picture of an administration that will say or do anything to pursue its Imperial ambitions but can not deliver when it tries to put those policies into action. While the trail of the Libby guilty verdict does not lead directly to the Oval Office, it comes perilously close. If we cannot believe a president who says we are going to war to destroy WMDs and then to bring democracy to a nation that doesn’t seem to want it; who says we are doing everything possible to protect and care for our troops; who promises to fire anyone who leaks information about our secret agents; who pledges to rebuild after a hurricane and promises to bring integrity to government — then who can we believe?

No one in Washington, according to a recent poll for the Democracy Corps conducted by Democratic polling firm Greenburg Quinlan Rosner. In a recent series of focus groups, followed by a national quantitative survey, it finds “a complete lack of confidence in the Federal Government to do anything right.” That is not good for this White House or the Republican Party, which now has the confidence of only about 34 percent of the American people. But it would be a mistake for Democrats to take too much comfort from those numbers. Voters don’t trust government, period. Only 13 percent say the government would spend new money well; 81 percent believe it would be wasted. This continues a trend we’ve seen in ballot-issue campaigns all over America in the last two campaign cycles. In 2006 the strongest argument we found against any of a number of tax proposals was that you couldn’t trust the government to use the money the way it said it would. And that is an attitude held about state government, which used to get much higher marks than those calling the shots in Washington, D.C.

So Scooter Libby is guilty of perjury. That comes as no surprise. It is just one more hit on the credibility of politicians in and out of power. Quoting Quinlan again, “The core of the problem is a fundamental belief that government, and the politicians who run it, refuse to be held accountable for the way they do business.” The analysis continues: “… people are sick and tired of politicians who refuse to talk straight, take responsibility and admit a mistake …”  (Are you listening, Hillary?)

For the good of the nation, both Democrats and Republicans need to listen to what Americans are saying. Voters want someone to start telling the truth and doing his or her job — to stop playing partisan and parliamentary games and get to work. The message is, “We elect you to manage our government and our money well. Get on with it.” Both George Bush and the Democrats have less than two years to prove they can do that.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com