Suddenly, it's a vast left-wing conspiracy

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

October 21, 2005

I'VE BEEN waiting for quite a while now for conservatives to come up with a theory to explain why large chunks of the Republican Party are, or soon will be, under indictment. The argument I've been anticipating has finally arrived, in the form of a long lead editorial in the latest edition of the influential conservative magazine the Weekly Standard.

The editorial, written by Standard Editor William Kristol and longtime conservative activist Jeffrey Bell, begins by acknowledging the uncomfortable fact that "the most prominent promoters of the conservative agenda of the Bush administration" are facing legal troubles of one kind or another. It cites the legal imbroglios of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay and Bill Frist. It neglects to mention David Safavian, the chief of staff at the General Services Administration in the Bush administration; conservative activist/superlobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon; and Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) and Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), and perhaps some others I'm forgetting.

Anyway, one conclusion you could draw from all these examples is that the Republican Party has gotten a bit corrupt. The Standard does not, however, draw this conclusion. Another possibility is that it's all just a coincidence. The Standard doesn't conclude that, either. Instead, the editorial declares, "a comprehensive strategy of criminalization had been implemented to inflict defeat on conservatives who seek to govern as conservatives."

The wording here is instructive. The authors have obviously chosen to use the passive voice to avoid having to spell out just who has implemented this comprehensive strategy of criminalization. That's because answering that question would expose just how silly their theory is.

DeLay is being pursued by Texas Dist. Atty. Ronnie Earle. Frist is being pursued by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Rove and Libby are in trouble with Republican prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. So apparently disparate elements of the criminal justice system are working in concert to undermine conservatives. That sure is a comprehensive strategy.

When I first read this editorial, the argument sounded vaguely familiar. And then it hit me. An old "Simpsons" episode featured a Rush Limbaugh-like talk show host bemoaning the conviction of attempted murderer and Republican loyalist Sideshow Bob. "My friends, isn't this just typical? Another intelligent conservative here, railroaded by our liberal justice system," he tells his listeners in disgust.

When it appeared on "The Simpsons," this line of reasoning was self-evident parody. Now it's being put forward in complete earnestness by one of the leading intellectual journals of the right.

More comic still is the Standard's effort to explain away the underlying alleged offenses. Rove and Libby could be indicted for allegedly leaking the name of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame. But the editorial complains, "Is the identity of Valerie Plame the most consequential leak of the last four years? … Do no employees of the Central Intelligence Agency (almost universally anti-Bush and anti-conservative) ever leak anything?"

To answer the questions: No, the Plame leak is not the most consequential one, and yes, CIA staffers leak information. The point is that the Plame leak, unlike most Washington leaking, was illegal. Allegedly.

The principle here is a phrase the Standard and other conservatives used endlessly during the Clinton administration: "rule of law." Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky wasn't consequential, either. But the Standard insisted that didn't matter. The rule of law, it heatedly insisted, required that Clinton be impeached, however inconsequential the underlying offense.

Now, as a criminal-coddling liberal, I happen to believe that the rule of law ought to allow for some consideration of proportionality. (For that matter, I think that Frist — who indicated a desire to sell his family stock before the company learned its value would drop — may well be innocent of insider trading.) So I'm not certain that the whole top echelon of the GOP should be led off to prison merely because they broke a law. Allegedly.

But what about the right? I don't want to say they've abandoned their principles en masse when they've become inconvenient. I'll just suggest that a comprehensive strategy of principle abandonment has been implemented.