Goodbye Gonzales, the longer article
While watching the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the obvious question is “What took so long?” Gonzales seemed like a nice enough guy, but was yet another obvious example of President Bush’s letting loyalty trump competence on a stage where such a tradeoff is not only bad for the country, but also bad politics. Whether with FEMA head Mike Brown or with the disastrous Harriet Miers episode, President Bush has too often acted as if he were choosing friends for his kickball team rather than running the world’s only superpower. And there is no doubt that Gonzales repaid Bush’s loyalty in kind, taking a rhetorical beating from Democrats and Republicans alike as he tried to wend his way through the maze of defending anti-terrorism surveillance programs and explaining the US Attorney firings controversy. While the surveillance programs are tricky territory for anyone to explain, especially anyone charged with protecting and defending the constitution, Gonzales’ downfall was his absolutely inept management of the US Attorney situation. His story changed repeatedly and, depending on whether you were inclined favorably toward Gonzales or not, it was unavoidable to conclude that he either had too bad a memory to have such an important job or that he was simply lying. It was no accident that Republicans from the liberal Arlen Specter to conservative Tom Coburn abandoned Gonzales. It has been argued that Gonzales should not resign because it would create an opening through which opponents of all things related to President Bush might try to attack the administration. Patrick Leahy and John Conyers are perfect examples: Their only reason for existence seems to be to attempt to subpoena White House staff in a silly game of political “gotcha”…which Leahy never seems to win but is too set in his ways and too partisan to stop playing. Some also argue that a Gonzales resignation would let Leahy and friends say there’s now a smoking gun that something illegal was done. My guess regarding both the surveillance and US attorney situations is that nothing illegal was done, but both were handled poorly. Gonzales concerned me early on while, as White House counsel, he repeatedly advised the Administration that massive expansion of executive power was legal and constitutional. Basically, he functioned as a rubber stamp for what some people describe as an “imperial presidency”. If after being made Attorney General Gonzales continued to give that sort of advice to the president, and there’s no reason to believe he would change, it is not surprising that President Bush would feel much safer than he should have in implementing a wider range of surveillance programs, skirting FISA (I realize this is a widely debated question), and informing Congress minimally. If you believe these things were done incorrectly or with little regard for the rule of law, our system of checks and balances, or civil liberties, the fault lies with Bush to the extent that he chose and relied on Gonzales as his AG, but primarily with Gonzales who acted as little more than a “Yes Man” for the administrations policy desires. To be clear, I believe that at least what I know of the surveillance programs, i.e. that they target conversations where at least one participant is outside the US and where there is reason to suspect terrorist connections, are probably both desirable and constitutional. As for the US Attorney firings, unless they were fired to prevent prosecutions of Republicans, something I strongly doubt in part because if that were the case I’m sure mainstream media would be trumpeting it from every rooftop, the bottom line is that they could have been fired, all or just some, at any time for any other reason. They are political appointees, period. And that is all Bush and Gonzales should have said about it when the issue arose. Trying to tap dance around the firings lead Gonzales into a morass of contradictions that was entirely unnecessary and ultimately fatal to his tenure in office. So I don’t buy the arguments that Gonzales should have stayed, basically to act as a shield for the administration. I think he put a giant target on the administration and that his departure is as good news politically as was the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld. I do not know how long it will take for President Bush to learn once and for all that he must appoint competence over old friendships. It appeared he has at least considered that by his choice of Robert Gates to succeed Rumsfeld. Bush would be well advised to stay on that track when working to replace Gonzales. Some of the early talk mentions moving current Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff from his current post to be the new Attorney General. This would be a decision of questionable wisdom despite Chertoff’s more than acceptable qualifications to be AG, including having been a federal prosecutor and a judge. Fairly or not, Chertoff still has a slight negative perception around him following the federal government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. He also was a point man for the administration in pushing the recently-killed Senate Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill, a bill which was hugely unpopular among Republicans, and hardly more popular among Democrats. If supporting a particular bill could effectively end the presidential aspirations of John McCain, it couldn’t be a good think for Chertoff either, especially as the job of Attorney General is a position with tremendous responsibility for implementing immigration policy. President Bush should reach outside his current staff and cabinet (or at least outside anyone with a substantial current public presence) and bring in a new face with no real controversy around him. Of course, the Democrats will try to attack any new nominee, but if the nominee is of high enough quality it will simply serve to make Patrick Leahy and friends look as silly as they deserve to look. One of the reasons Republicans got so thoroughly trounced in the last election was a perception of incompetence in the administration. The best thing President Bush could do now is to use Alberto Gonzales’ departure as an opportunity to raise the actual and perceived level of talent surrounding him. Between that and finding his veto pen when the massive piles of pork start arriving from Congress soon, the President could justifiably increase his approval ratings among Americans and reduce the chances that the next election will be a reprise of the last.
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