The Bolton Affair, which until now was just an engrossing political slug-fest in which the Vice-President gambled his boss's political future has suddenly lurched into a Constitutional crisis.
The administration has put so many chips on the table for this one that losing would not only dent, but actually detonate, its image of invulnerability. Once blood is in the water the legislative sharks start to circle, and the administration's ability to cram legislation down congress's throat becomes reduced or non-existent. So far, that's just politics as usual. (Clinton's moment of defeat was the first week of his first Presidency, when he went back on his promise to let gays serve openly in the military. Everyone on the Hill understood that if Clinton would back down on a campaign promise when confronted by people sworn to obey him, he could be rolled like a drunk when it came to dealing with legislators with their own agendas. Health care died in the Oval Office before the Clinton administration was two weeks old.)
What is not politics as usual is that the Bush administration has suddenly escalated the Bolton stakes yet again — this time to a constitutional crisis level. Bolton is suspected of using NSA intercepts to spy on his colleagues or to undermine then-Secretary of State Powell. Nothing has been proved. The chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic Senators have asked to see copies of the same NSA intercepts that Bolton (a mid level appointee) was allowed to see, in order for the Senate to weigh those charges.
Now the administration has said Senators with a constitutional advise and consent duty can't have the same access to NSA intercepts that third-level state department people get. As Steve Clemons says, that changes everything.
It's possible there may be nothing in the intercepts. It would be classic Rove to build them up in the hopes that they become the sole issue — distracting everyone from the out-of-control maniac who allegedly ran down a Moscow hotel room chasing a low-level bureaucrat for the crime of being honest, banging her door and howling like a loon, and then later spending days trying to destroy her career. Build the intercepts up as the only issue, then give in, say that the administration went the 'extra mile' and see! Bolton has been 'cleared'! That would be classic Rove indeed.
So it's important not to let the intercepts become the entire show in this three-ring circus. But it's also important that the Senate not set a precedent that it can be treated like a potted plant.