After Scooter

In the hours of television I watched in the wake of the Scooter Libby verdict Tuesday, I found this exchange, between MSNBC host Tucker Carlson and A.B. Stoddard of The Hill, the most interesting (Stoddard, a reporter, was paired with former RNC spokesman Jim Dyke -- balance, baby!):

Carlson: Will there be real Democratic investigations, led by Congress, into the genesis of this war and will they result in action?

Stoddard: Well, they were talking for months about how they were going to be looking at it, and so this might increase the appetite for oversight of pre-war intelligence again. But then again, that is looking back. And they can busy themselves with that, but they have to look forward. And the big question that the base is asking is what are they going to do on the war?

It's too early to say whether Stoddard's view is the conventional wisdom among Democrats. But it shouldn't be. Ending the war, like it or not, will have to wait. Congress can't end a war that a president is intent on waging, and, obviously, the Democrats are at loggerheads on the matter anyway. The more interesting question remains how the war started, and Democrats would be making an appalling mistake if they let bygones be bygones here.

Whenever I hear a Democrat in Congress say something like, "We're not interested in the past; we're focused on the future," I shoot the nearest television. What this usually means is: "Our pollsters tell us that voters don't remember what happened last week, let alone three or four years ago, and that we just open ourselves up to attack for 'dwelling in the past.'"

This is exactly the kind of politics that lost them the last two very winnable presidential elections. Follow your polls, stay on safe ground, concede the other side's arguments before they've even made them; and for God's sakes, don't ever try to move public opinion, just try to meet it and placate it.

If they don't know by now how much this posture has cost them politically in the last seven years -- and how much it's cost the country in countless ways -- then majority status will be fundamentally wasted on them.

I suspect there's still a lot that we don't know about pre-war intelligence misuse. For starters, there's the famous disappearing Phase II report on the subject, promised but never delivered by the Senate Intelligence Committee when Republican Pat Roberts was the chairman. Democrat Jay Rockefeller, not known for having carved a swashbuckling profile when he was the committee's ranking minority member, is now the chairman. He needs to be pushing hard now.

Libby may be unlikely to flip -- if he lied for Dick Cheney under oath, there's not much reason to think he'll stop lying for him now, especially with a possible pardon in his future. But an event like Libby's guilty verdict has a way of prying open lips that were previously closed on these questions. Somewhere in the catacombs of the National Security Agency or State or Defense or the CIA, there are bound to be people sitting on information conveying the full extent of the administration's pre-war manipulations who can clarify decisions made by Cheney or even by Bush himself with regard to faulty intelligence.

The Democrats now have a governmental -- not a political, a governmental -- duty to pursue whatever leads they have to the fullest extent of their authority. The American people were lied to repeatedly and monstrously. They need to know the details. (And by the way, if ending the war is your chief interest, revelations of the sort I'm talking about will help that along, too.)

Dick Cheney must be subpoenaed. He needs to answer questions under oath. Andrew Sullivan wrote Tuesday that if Cheney doesn't answer the subpoena, Democrats should consider impeaching him. I disagree -- the Democrats don't need to do the White House and the Republican candidates for 2008 the political favor of removing the albatross of Cheney from around their necks. What they need to do, through whatever combination of legal and public pressure they can muster, is get him on the Hill with his hand on the Bible (and watch to see whether it burns him).

There are signs that Democrats are leaning this way. Chuck Schumer told The New York Times that "I do think we will look at how the case shows the misuse of intelligence both before and after the war in Iraq." Since Schumer is involved in virtually all high-level Democratic strategy discussions, we know at least that Democrats will be thinking about how to press the issue. But "Democrats stuck in the past" is going to become a major talking point whenever they start heading down this road. Please folks: Give your pollsters a long vacation and do the right thing.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.

* * *

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.

Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.