ENPR: Week of April 25, 2007

April 25, 2007
Washington, DC
Vol. 42, No. 9a
  • Republican inquisitors are hostile toward Gonzales, whose testimony was painful to watch.
  • OSC boldly opens an investigation into White House political activities, in a sign that the administration has lost its grip.
  • Abortion ruling exposes some Democrats’ attempts to have it both ways on the issue.
  • Non-candidates Thompson and Gingrich place first and second in Oklahoma GOP straw poll.


  1. Republican morale is at a low point that recalls Watergate days. The word from Iraq is that the surge has not proved an immediate cure-all. On the contrary, the U.S. military is overworked and tired. There now appears to be no hope of getting out of Iraq by year’s end. Adding to the low morale is President George W. Bush‘s defensive posture behind the barricade, defying the Democratic majority in Congress.
  2. The minuet over the supplemental appropriations bill for the Iraq war will be played out this week, with the bill finally passed and then vetoed by President Bush. Since Democrats cannot override the veto, both sides will be forced to sit down and try to negotiate a compromise. Probable outcome: no hard deadline for getting U.S. troops out of Iraq but some conditions that the President will not like.
  3. The non-candidacy of former Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson continues to be the talk of Republicans, but there is concern among potential supporters that he has not put in place a fund-raising operation and is falling far behind the announced candidates in the money game. Rudy Giuliani (R) in particular has an excellent financial structure, especially in New York, Texas and California. But Thompson has acting commitments to make and probably will not announce until June at the earliest.
  4. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s (D-N.Y.) breaking out into a faux country twang in addressing Al Sharpton‘s forum in Manhattan confirms that she is a flawed candidate. While she maintains a lead in some polls over Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), she is not putting away the nomination as her supporters had hoped. A new Rasmussen poll has the two tied at 32 percent.
  5. Sudden FBI raids on the residences and businesses of Representatives John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) appear almost calculated to demonstrate that the fired U.S. attorneys’ investigations into Republican corruption cases have not been stalled or stopped by the firings. As a side note, Republican leaders prevailed on both to step down from their sensitive committee assignments.

Bush Administration

Gonzales: President Bush gave several signs Tuesday that he really does intend to keep Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales in office. This is bad news for Republicans.

  1. Bush released an unusual statement praising Gonzales "for taking on this difficult and important assignment" in co-chairing a minor task force. His improbable praise for Gonzales’s pathetic performance as a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week was another sign. The authoritative word from the White House was that Bush was adamant about retaining Gonzales as attorney general despite Republican demands that Bush cut his losses and find someone new.
  2. Vice President Dick Cheney‘s verbal joust Tuesday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested that the continued defense of Gonzales is not an isolated act of defiance (see below). Bush, never enamored of life in Washington, detests dealing with a Democratic Congress. Reflecting annoyance and fatigue, he is unwilling to withstand incessant attacks from the likes of Reid and is ready to fight it out for the year and a half left in his term.
  3. Republicans in Congress view this posture by Bush as pure folly. For the long term, they see their President’s intent to wage constant warfare against the majority Democrats, and from such a weak position, as casting a pall on Republican chances of retaining the presidency in 2008. For the shorter term, they foresee nothing but trouble from Gonzales’s continuing to stay in office. House GOP leaders and members do not shy away from noting that Gonzales has no Republican support on Capitol Hill.
  4. Gonzales’s difficulties did not begin with the botched dismissal of U.S. attorneys or his serial memory failure in last week’s testimony. Much as Bill Clinton sought to replicate in Washington the culture of Little Rock by bringing along Vince Foster and Webster Hubbell, Bush imported such close associates from Austin as Gonzales and Harriet Miers. The results have not been pretty. Gonzales and others in this group demonstrate an ability to turn mere incompetence into the appearance of impropriety.
  5. While the current cliché is that Bush never should have named Gonzales as attorney general in the first place, the consensus in the administration was that he was already at sea in his first post as White House counsel. Colin Powell, Bush’s first-term secretary of State, was so appalled by Gonzales that he would shunt him off to Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, who in turn handed him down to lower levels along the State Department chain of command.
  6. Bush writes off this derision of Gonzales as part of Washington’s arrogance, and he seems determined not to appease that mindset. For now at least, the President refuses to yield, on the grounds that Gonzales — whatever his shortcomings — broke no laws.
  7. Bush’s position, however, may be undermined by an unexpected development this week. It was announced that a little-known government agency — the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), headed by Scott J. Bloch — has launched an investigation into possible illegal White House political participation in the case of the U.S. attorneys. (More on this below.)
  8. The irony here was not noted in early news accounts. Bloch, a devout Catholic, has been under fierce attack for three years in leading the independent investigative agency because of his interpretation of statutes covering worker protection of sexual orientation. He also has been publicly accused of hiring too many Catholics. Clay Johnson, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and another Texan brought to Washington by Bush, joined the attack on Bloch. The case became a cause célèbre on the right when Bloch was told by a prominent Catholic layman close to Bush that it would be better if he just resigned.
  9. Now the tables are turned, with Bloch investigating the White House. In an administration in trouble on several fronts, the President’s barricading himself with Al Gonzales by his side does not help.

OSC Investigation: The new investigation into political activities in the White House, announced Tuesday by the President’s appointee in the Office of Special Counsel, is a big deal. On the face, the charge in this investigation is that White House personnel — particularly one of Karl Rove‘s deputies — engaged in political activities on government time and in a government building. A Power Point presentation provided the probable cause. But there is far more to this story than a potentially illegal Power Point. It signifies a loss of fear and respect for the administration, evincing a perception that its power brokers will have no influence in Washington beyond 2008.

  1. The Office of Special Counsel is an obscure independent agency of the federal government that enforces laws on employment practices and employee behavior within the federal government and protects government whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing. Because the investigation is being conducted by a Bush appointee, liberals unfamiliar with the long story here are already expressing doubt that such an investigation is for real. Downtown Washington sees it very differently.
  2. The beginning of this investigation marks an unlikely course of events in a long-running saga in which President Bush has been trying to purge Special Counsel Bloch, his own appointee. Just a year ago, Bloch looked like he was the one sinking, about to be removed from office, maligned among prospective employers, and perhaps even prosecuted. But all of the sudden, it is the White House in hot water, and Bloch may be untouchable.
  3. Bloch first ran into trouble shortly after arriving in the administration. His decision to change the department’s website to reflect the statutory language on sexual orientation and discrimination in the federal workforce — replacing what he viewed as the overreaching, pro-homosexual policies of his predecessor — was what caused the burst of rage against him. He was subsequently accused of just about every misdeed possible in his position — including incompetence and discrimination against his own employees. All indications are that the office is run well, however. This controversy is complicated and probably far less significant than all the attention it received would suggest. But because it touched such a hot-button issue, it became a symbolic battle and there was no turning back. Congressional Republicans bowed to Democrats’ wishes — especially those of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — in exercising oversight and holding hearings on Bloch, but he performed well under the scrutiny — no one could pin anything on him.
  4. The liberal groups stoking the controversy reportedly did not expect any of their complaints to go anywhere, but they did not count on White House officials’ championing their cause and attempting to purge Bloch — who refused to go quietly. Not only did the White House not come to Bloch’s defense, it initiated a full investigation into his official conduct, demanding an exorbitant amount of money from his agency’s budget in order to do so. Clay Johnson, Bush’s Texas friend, even demanded Bloch’s resignation, and referred the matter to the inspector general for the White House Office for Personnel Management (OPM).
  5. Only a few conservatives on Capitol Hill said or did anything to defend Bloch, who in the meantime held on and kept raising questions about the legality of OPM’s investigation. (There is a difficult and dry legal dispute over who has the authority to do such an investigation and where its results can be appealed.) Employees at OSC filed at least two complaints against OPM for the questions asked about their religion — and even about whether Bloch ever discussed Plato with them — during the investigation.
  6. The investigation of Bloch has dragged on slowly ever since, but everything has changed with his new investigation of Rove’s office. It would be very difficult and it would look very bad for the White House, currently embroiled in numerous congressional investigations, to crack the whip against an executive branch official investigating it.

Iraq War Impasse: Prominent congressional Republicans urged a reluctant White House to make sure President Bush’s veto of the supplemental appropriations bill does not just protest the measure’s deadlines for removing troops from Iraq but also assails its domestic spending provisions, better known as "earmarks."

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is among those sharing the view that after Congress fails to override the veto, a new supplemental money bill may remove the mandatory Iraq withdrawal language while retaining the pork, unless Bush speaks out against it directly. Bush aides argue that the President’s stand against interfering with support for troops in the field should not be diluted.

Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney made an unusual appearance in the Ohio Clock Room outside the Senate floor, issuing a direct challenge to Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid, who had earlier promised no cutoff of funds for the war, is playing a game of chicken with Cheney and the White House to see who blinks first. Reid’s latest salvo included a threat to introduce a bill cutting off war funding. It is the subject of some question whether Cheney, one of the least popular members of an unpopular administration, accomplishes anything by speaking out against Democrats and in favor of an unpopular war.

French Elections: Elections in France May 6 are now expected to bring about a regime far more friendly to Washington than existed previously. Nicholas Sarkozy, the nominee of the ruling center-right party of President Jacques Chirac, will face Socialist Segolene Royal in the runoff election. Sarkozy finished first in last weekend’s elections and enjoys a large lead in the polls.

A centrist candidate, Francois Bayou, received more support than expected. This is interpreted as a sign that there is enough discontent with Royal that Sarkozy will take much of his support in the second round.

Sarkozy is the most pro-American of the top candidates, yet he has probably done enough of the America-bashing necessary in French politics to win. Critics hounded Sarkozy for even meeting Bush last September — former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius called Sarkozy Bush’s "lapdog." In a French poll last December, 75 percent of respondents said they want their next president to keep a distance from U.S. foreign policy.

Sarkozy agreed with Chirac’s decision to stay out of the Iraq War and has also said that the hanging of Saddam Hussein was a mistake. He opposes military action against Iran but favors sanctions to force it to give up its nuclear program. He also opposes Turkish membership in the European Union. His election, however, would signal an end to the at times fierce antagonism in which Bush and Chirac have engaged.


Abortion Ruling: The Supreme Court’s ruling last week to uphold the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (passed by Congress in 2003) has put some congressional Democrats in a tough spot. Those who originally opposed the bill and last week were denouncing the decision came off as extremists, but they can at least take refuge in their consistency. It is the Democrats who supported the bill, but counted on its being struck down by the Supreme Court, who are stuck. They now fear being held accountable by their party’s pro-abortion donor base.

  1. Senate Majority Leader Reid told a press conference: "I would only say that this isn’t the only decision that a lot of us wish that [Justice Samuel] Alito weren’t there and [former Justice Sandra Day] O’Connor were there." These cryptic words certainly sent the message that Reid was repudiating his own Senate vote for the popular bill in 2003. However, Reid says he supports the decision, which upholds a ban on delivering a fetus and then crushing its skull.
  2. The leading Democratic presidential candidates — Sen. Hillary Clinton, who voted against the ban in 2003, Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — lashed out against last Wednesday’s ruling. But 17 Democratic senators voted for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (as it passed, 64 to 34). Their ranks included Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the current Judiciary Committee chairman, and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a chairman of the Foreign Relations committee — both strongly pro-choice on abortion most of the time. Neither wants to discuss the decision now — not even the famously verbose Biden, who is running for President.
  3. Reid, who has a mostly pro-choice voting record, tried to resolve his quandary by noting that the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 lineup on partial-birth abortion flipped when Alito replaced O’Connor last year with Reid opposing his confirmation. But Reid has never spoken out against any other Alito opinion, not even the ones he now lists as points of real contention with the justice.
  4. Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), Biden’s normally silent colleague who tries to take a middle ground position on abortion, had also voted for the ban, but was willing to speak very bluntly: "I think a number of people who voted for it thought that the court would ultimately strike it down." This highlights Democrats’ problem with taking votes that even modestly curb the regime of abortion on demand at all times and by any means. Suddenly, the Supreme Court is no longer capable of bailing them out for the few votes they take against abortion.

Gun Control: In the wake of last week’s Virginia Tech shooting, Democrats’ restraint on the gun control issue has been surprising. Even liberals such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) have downplayed or disavowed calls for more gun control laws.

In seeking passage of the bill granting a vote in Congress to the District of Columbia last week, House Democratic leaders had two options in the wake of a clever Republican move in March that scuttled the vote by attempting to add repeal of the D.C. gun ban. They could have ordered their caucus to vote against the measure, thus pitting them against the gun lobby. They decided not to risk this. Instead, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) employed a parliamentary maneuver to prevent a vote on gun rights in D.C.

President 2008

Thompson-Gingrich: The two big Republican "non-candidates" for President — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Sen. Fred Thompson — topped a recent Oklahoma straw poll. Thompson took 38 percent and Gingrich took 15. This comes as yet another sign that Republican discontent for the big three candidates — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — overwhelms the Republican side of the presidential equation. Giuliani, who placed third, had only 9 percent.

Gingrich continues to hold his powder, hinting that any announcement will wait until the fall. Thompson, starting far behind in the money chase for the Republican presidential nomination, is considering adopting the 2004 tactics used by Democrat Howard Dean (D-Vt.) to raise campaign money via the Internet. All the signs of discontent at the grassroots level suggest that he could succeed in doing this.

Robert D. Novak