The issue now is whether the Karl Rove leak affair marks a tipping point in the way President Bush's administration is viewed by the public, treated by the press and regarded by Republicans in Congress.
The furious counterattacks on Rove's behalf over the past few days suggest that Bush's supporters are worried that unless this wound is cleansed quickly, the president could confront an increasingly skeptical electorate and emboldened media. Both could take a toll on the president's support within his own party.
The reports that Rove discussed an undercover CIA operative during a July 2003 interview with Time magazine were splashed across the nation's front pages at an awkward time for Bush.
For most of his first term, the president rode out controversies by drawing on a substantial well of public respect and affection. But Bush's popularity ratings have been on the decline for much of the year. Public patience with the war in Iraq is waning, and support for the president's major domestic initiative on Social Security has dropped steadily. A president who in the past might have pulled his top political adviser out of trouble instead finds the controversy surrounding Rove deepening the difficulties he already had.
And at a critical moment, the normally effective Bush spin operation finds itself handcuffed because the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame is the subject of a criminal investigation that seems close to fruition. The embers of the Rove controversy were stoked into flame on Monday because of a remarkable White House briefing in which spokesman Scott McClellan was forced to avoid 35 questions on Rove because of the "ongoing investigation."
This powerlessness is an unprecedented situation for Bush. For most of his presidency, Bush had little reason to fear the actions of an independent branch of government. Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress since the 2002 elections, meaning that the president did not face embarrassing public hearings. For most of the 17 months in Bush's term when Democrats narrowly controlled the Senate, the president enjoyed near invulnerability because of his popularity after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And in most controversial cases -- notably over whether Vice President Cheney could keep the consultations of his energy task force secret -- the courts sided with Bush.
But special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who is investigating the Plame leak, is outside the administration's control. Even the president, who values loyalty and must dearly want to defend his closest adviser, was forced to punt this week on questions about Rove. Bush said he did not want to "prejudge the investigation."
It has thus fallen to surrogates, notably Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, to launch a counteroffensive. Yet the strategy to defend Rove oddly reinforces the charges against the administration. Mehlman issued a statement devoted largely to citations of news reports attacking the credibility of Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson. Yesterday, as Wilson called for Rove's firing, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) said Wilson's attacks on Bush policies were a "political sham."
The irony is that Plame's name was leaked in the first place as a way of undercutting Wilson's criticisms of the administration's claims that Iraq was acquiring nuclear weapons. So a White House under investigation for allegedly leaking an attack on an opponent now has its supporters defending against the charge with -- more attacks.
The conventional view is that Rove will be safe as long as he escapes indictment. Given how much Bush values his services, that may be true. But even if Rove survives, the events of this week will leave scars on the administration by dramatizing negative perceptions that, until now, have done little damage.
As long ago as October 2002, when Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank wrote a memorable story under the headline "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable," the administration has been accused of distortions, exaggerations and falsehoods. The spectacle of McClellan's being unable to back up his previous denials -- he said in the fall of 2003 that Rove and two other administration officials "assured me they were not involved in this" -- brought this problem home as no catalogue of questionable administration statements ever could.
And an administration frequently accused of winning by destroying its opponents and critics is now in court because one such attack touched an employee of the CIA.
Rove is said to admire Napoleon's adage: "The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack." Unless, of course, they manage to make it work one more time, an approach that has served Rove and Bush well is in grave jeopardy.