The Monica Lewinsky Lesson

If it hadn’t been for the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the United States might have had the blessing of private Social Security accounts, and that’s one reason I think Karl Rove should resign as a chief aide to President Bush.

Maybe that sounds like a convoluted proposition, so let me explain by first noting that President Bill Clinton hoped to reform Social Security to save it, and was looking hard at the idea of individual retirement accounts. Had his political capital not been dramatically lessened by the Lewinsky scandal, I think it a good possibility he would have nudged Congress into enacting them.

Why would he have had better luck than Bush, who toured the country trying to sell the idea of private accounts and seemed to increase opposition with every speech? For one thing, I think Clinton was simply more skillful at convincing the public about the value inherent in whatever he wanted to do. For another, he would not have had to do battle with all those lefties convinced that anything that comes from Bush is a conspiracy of fundamentalist Christians, oil interests, Wall Street, Fox TV or radio-talk-show hosts.

But scandals sap the energy and the power of the targeted parties, just as surely as they energize and empower those who use them for partisan or ideological advantage. Clinton didn’t have a chance to accomplish anything much after it became obvious that he lied in court and elsewhere about his Lewinsky liaison, and I don’t think the Bush administration will have a chance to accomplish much as long as Rove hangs on to his job.

True, a Rove departure will not make the scandal disappear. There will still be questions about what Bush knew and when, and whether he lied, and it’s unlikely his current low approval rating will bounce upwards. A Rove departure will also leave Bush without the daily advice of a shrewd, knowledgeable, trusted friend who has proved his worth repeatedly.

Bush already has other good advisers, however, and if Rove stays aboard, all other discussions in Washington will be in one sense subordinate to this one: Everything Bush aims to do will be tarred by this brush. A chief task now, for example, is to get a justice on the Supreme Court who actually thinks the Constitution should be the principal guide in making rulings. If we still have the same deputy chief of staff when Bush makes a nomination, the Democrats will argue that the choice is the unprincipled work of a discredited political operative, roguish Rove.

None of this is to say that I think Rove guilty of any crime. In order to avoid an infringement on free speech, the law in question was written in such a way as to apply only to people purposely aiming to undermine national security. As two of the law’s framers have publicly said, Rove is not close to being in violation of it. For that matter, as a Wall Street Journal editorial points out, Rove did the nation a favor by showing that Joseph Wilson was recommended to go to Niger on an investigative mission by his CIA-employed wife, not Vice President Cheney, as Wilson said.

But Rove did lie about talking to reporters on the subject, and Bush did promise to fire anyone in the administration who disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife. For the Democrats and leftists, that makes it “gotcha” time, and if anyone thinks they will put aside this political opportunity in light of calm, deliberative arguments or for the national good, that person has not been heeding either news or history.

This country has things to do to _ save itself from terrorists, from economic mishap, from judges who think their capriciousness a legitimate substitute for the rule of law, from programs that will sink us if we do not reform them. As I said in a prior column, to the dismay of some conservative e-mail artists who often agree with me, Rove should scat.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)