In his March 7 "analysis" of the Bush administration's "accountability moment" regarding the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on charges of perjury, lying to FBI agents, and obstructing justice, Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker wrote that "[n]o one has been quicker to declare the return of accountability than Democrats." As evidence, he pointed to the recent congressional investigations into both conditions for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration. But Baker then warned that "accountability politics can also be dangerous to the touch," citing the Clinton-era investigations that "consumed" Washington and that he described as having "backfired politically." However, Baker's warning about the possibility of Democrats' overreaching echoes the often-repeated warnings during the 2006 election season by Republicans about the dangers of a Democratically controlled Congress actually exercising oversight. And his linking of current oversight efforts to congressional Republicans' investigations of the Clinton administration ignored at least one key difference: The hearings surrounding both the Walter Reed living conditions and U.S. attorney firings have considerable bipartisan support.
Early in the March 7 article, Baker noted that the ongoing congressional investigations, as well as the March 6 conviction of Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, "ha[ve] revived a pattern largely missing through the six years of Bush's presidency, in which high-level officials accused of wrongdoing are grilled, fired and sometimes even jailed." He later claimed that such "accountability politics" could prove "dangerous" for Democrats:
No one has been quicker to declare the return of accountability than Democrats, who are using their newfound subpoena power to sharp effect in hauling up Pentagon officials to answer for poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and in giving fired U.S. attorneys a venue to blame their dismissals on administration politics. In two months, Democrats have held 81 hearings on Iraq. "This is just the beginning," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "What a difference a year makes."
But accountability politics can also be dangerous to the touch. Washington became consumed during the presidency of Emanuel's onetime boss, Bill Clinton, whose administration came under scrutiny of at least seven independent counsels and even more Republican congressional committees. The atmosphere was so toxic that Clinton adviser Paul Begala put an attorney on retainer before even joining the White House staff.
In discussing the "risk for Democrats," Baker reported that "[s]ome Republicans suggested that the public could tire of repeated hearings such as those held this week and write them off to partisanship." He went on to quote former Bush White House communications director Nicolle Wallace warning Democrats that Americans purportedly do not want to see "the obstruction of people trying to do things":
The risk for Democrats would be overplaying the accountability hand. Their attempts to impose limits on Bush's ability to fight the war have collapsed repeatedly and left them unable to fashion a coherent approach to the most serious issue in the country. Some Republicans suggested that the public could tire of repeated hearings such as those held this week and write them off to partisanship.
"They bring up sort of old Washington," said former Bush aide Nicolle Wallace. "The Democrats have to walk a fine line and be careful. People don't want to turn on the TV and see every story being about the obstruction of people trying to do things. ... The people who will stand out in Washington are the ones who will look forward."
But while Baker reported these GOP warnings to Democrats -- and echoed them himself -- his article failed to mention the bipartisan support for the current investigations led by Democrats. Indeed, on February 21, the Post itself reported that Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-VA), the ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, "urged the committee to hold a hearing at Walter Reed to give members an 'invaluable firsthand look' at how the Army is processing the wounded." Reporting on the start of the Walter Reed hearings in a March 6 article, the Post noted the "bipartisan nature of the criticism ... in the first of what is likely to be a string of hearings probing problems at Walter Reed and in military health care more broadly."
The allegations of congressional wrongdoing and political maneuvering by the Bush administration in the dismissal of eight U.S attorneys have also provoked bipartisan concern. During a March 6 Senate Judiciary hearing into the matter, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) informed the committee of his belief in the significance of the case, claiming that "if the allegations are correct, there has been serious misconduct in what has occurred."
Further, while Baker did not provide any Democratic response to Wallace's claim, his assertion that congressional Democrats could be in "danger" by holding the Bush administration accountable originates from GOP talking points during last year's midterm elections. Media Matters for America noted before the midterms that the view that Democrats would use congressional investigations to obstruct and destroy the Bush administration was a Republican talking point, advanced by then-Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA). Moreover, the Republican "warning" about Democrats and investigations falsely assumed that Americans did not want Congress to conduct significant investigations of the administration. In fact, polling at the time indicated that a majority would support Democrats in such investigations.
Finally, Baker quoted Republican political strategist Mary Matalin's "outrage" at the conviction of Libby. Matalin claimed that "Scooter didn't do anything" and that former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV is "a demonstrable partisan liar." Baker did not mention that Matalin is on the advisory committee to the "Libby Legal Defense Trust." Further, Media Matters has documented numerous examples of misinformation by Matalin (here and here), including several pertaining to the alleged leak of former CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity.