Pardon Me?

George W. Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer said last week that the president-elect has no plans to pardon Bill Clinton if -- as expected -- independent counsel Robert Ray indicts him when he leaves office next month. Most Republicans strongly favor Bush's position and are eager to see the legal system finally deliver Clinton his comeuppance. "I think if you pardon Bill Clinton, it would be a terrible way to start a new Bush administration," Republican strategist Ed Rollins said on Hardball.

Most Democrats believe Clinton has suffered enough and take the opposing view, supporting a Bush pardon if Clinton is indicted. For liberals, this way of thinking is exactly wrong. Rather than help Clinton, a Bush pardon would mainly help Bush. The strongest opponents of a Clinton pardon are the same hardline Republicans who pushed his impeachment through the House. Bush campaigned on the promise that he could stand up to this group. But so far he hasn't. By dropping his preferred candidate for Attorney General -- moderate Montana Governor Marc Racicot -- in favor of Senator John Ashcroft, Bush openly conceded to conservative pressure. But by pardoning Clinton, Bush would immediately separate himself from his party's extremists and the bitter partisanship with which they are associated. Breaking with the far right over a Clinton pardon would be Bush's equivalent of the "I'm-my-own-man" declaration Gore so successfully employed during the Democratic Convention.

It would also be a quick fix-it for other Bush problems. For example, Bush's
attempts to appoint a token Democrat to his cabinet have been roundly,
and embarrassingly, stiffed. The promise Bush made during his victory
speech to represent even those who didn't vote for him looks empty. Pardoning Clinton would squash these perceptions. The public (and surely the media) would seize on it as true evidence of Bush's bipartisanship. Centrist Democrats like John Breaux and Robert Torricelli would cite it as license to work openly with Bush, and abandon the party unity that solidified during the Florida fracas. It might even be a step toward thawing Bush's relationship with African-Americans, with whom Clinton is exceedingly popular and impeachment was not.

But while a pardon might appear compassionate, it wouldn't carry a real political cost. Bush's gesture would earn him his sought-after aura of "healer" without sacrificing a single thing on his agenda. And it would provide him political cover to slaughter liberals on policy, where Republican concessions would make a real difference.

Republican opponents have pointed out that issuing pardons can hurt a president. After he pardoned Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford's approval rating plummeted from the high 60s to the 30s. As Ford's chief of staff, Richard Cheney is no doubt well aware that from that point forward, Ford was never able to muster the public support he needed to pass his agenda. But Ford suffered because the country held Nixon in such low esteem and believed the pardon allowed him to skirt punishment. Pardoning a popular president like Clinton would have the opposite effect for Bush with a public long weary of his punishment.

Clinton recently told "60 Minutes" that he would neither seek nor accept a Bush pardon. This is consistent with his denial of having done anything illegal and provides him the possibility of beating any charges Ray might bring against him. But Clinton's wishes are of little consequence to Bush, who would benefit from the gesture even if Clinton declined it. After all, such an offer from a Republican was unheard of during the last eight years -- which is why liberals should be afraid of hearing one now.