It’s not every day that Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi agree. Historian and former LBJ aide Doris Kearns Goodwin and conservative pundit Mark Levin usually do not see eye to eye either. However, all of these (and others) observed the testimony of Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales regarding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys and reached a similar conclusion. Pelosi and Coburn along with Senators John Sununu (R.-N.H.), Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) and Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.) called for Gonzales to resign. Goodwin on “Meet the Press” said keeping him in his position would be like “water torture.” Levin observed at National Review Online that “Attacking Alberto Gonzales is like clubbing a baby seal. He’s weak. He was always weak.”
They were not alone as conservative commentators from Byron York (“disastrous”) to David Brooks (“not a great Mensa moment”) voiced their dismay about Gonzales’ performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Given weeks to prepare Gonzales repeatedly claimed he did not recall events or conversations relating to dismissal of the prosecutors and seemed at a loss to explain exactly why each of the eight was selected for termination.
This week Senators Specter (R.-Pa.), Coleman (D-Minn.), Collins (R.-Maine) and Alexander (R.-Tenn.) all openly criticized Gonzales but stopped short of calling for his dismissal. Sen. Brownback (R.-Kan.) was a solitary figure defending Gonzales and pleading for a halt in hectoring him to resign.
The major GOP presidential contenders offered their views ranging from harsh criticism to minimal support. Newt Gingrich last week on “Fox News Sunday” called for Gonzales to resign, declaring: “This is the most mishandled, artificial, self-created mess that I can remember in the years I’ve been active in public life.” In an AP interview on Monday Mike Huckabee dubbed Gonzales a “major distraction” and observed: “Sometimes the best position would be for the appointee to make the decision and not force the President to do so.”
Gov. Mitt Romney was more circumspect, declining to call for Gonzales’ removal at an Iowa campaign stop last weekend and in a Des Moines Register interview, and allowing only that “If he has removed a prosecutor, a U.S. attorney, in order to stop or interfere with a prosecution, that would be cause for removal.” Similarly Rudy Giuliani on the campaign trail remarked on Tuesday that: “Atty. Gen. Gonzales as far as I can tell didn’t violate any laws,” and added that “If the President has confidence in him, then I think we should defer to the president.” (Sen. McCain has been mum and his campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)
Despite this barrage of bipartisan criticism, Gonzales remains. The President last week pronounced that he was “pleased” with Gonzales testimony and that Gonzales had his “full confidence.” On Monday President Bush remarked that Gonzales’ testimony had actually “increased my confidence in his ability to do the job.” Trying to clamp down on speculation Gonzales might be on the chopping block, the President’s spokesperson emphasized that “the president stands by him.”
Whether Gonzales will survive and whether there was a nefarious purpose in removing the prosecutors remain unknown. But the flap reveals much about the Republicans’ unease as they face 2008 and about an increasingly restive conservative base.
Part of the candidly negative reaction toward Gonzales seems traceable to Republicans’ fears that after losses in 2006 there may be more casualties ahead in 2008. As University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato observes, “GOP senators understand that 2008 can be another 2006, and that they simply must put some distance between themselves and this unpopular President. Here’s a great, cost-free way to do it.” It is not surprising that New Hampshire’s Senator John Sununu — who faces one of the toughest races in 2008 — was quick to call for Gonzales’ resignation.
The Gonzalez mini-drama is part of a familiar pattern followed by most second term presidents. Nearly all of them face the “the slow ebbing of authority that comes with lame duck status,” as Sabato explains. The remarkably harsh criticism of Gonzales from the President’s own party may be a sign of worse to come. President Bush may face a similarly unsupportive reaction on issues such as “comprehensive” immigration reform which some congressional Republicans view as political kryptonite. The Gonzales episode suggests that Republican legislators increasingly may decline to stick with the President to the detriment of their own political futures.
Incumbents’ desire for survival is not the only reason why conservatives are more than happy to push Gonzales overboard. As Mark Levin wrote, Gonzales is not perceived as worth defending by many conservatives who “see him as incapable of defending himself, let alone advancing a conservative agenda.” Conservatives have found Gonzales wanting in many areas. Conservatives have grown increasingly frustrated with the glacial pace of judicial appointments, the Administration’s failure to take a principled position in key affirmative action cases and a general inability to forcefully articulate its position on issues such as electronic surveillance and detention of enemy combatants. Some conservatives are quite harsh in criticizing Gonzales’ failure to prosecute very serious leak cases regarding the CIA prisons, the NSA terrorist surveillance program and the SWIFT consortium tracing terrorist financing. They lay the blame squarely at Gonzales’ feet.
Some conservatives went so far as to bluntly suggest this was part of a larger pattern in the Bush administration. Gingrich remarked this Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”, “I think it is a tremendous mistake, which this administration has made on several occasions, to have personal loyalty transcend service to this nation.” Others doubted why he was selected in the first place. Echoing the criticism made over Harriet Miers’ unsuccessful Supreme Court nomination, Brooks remarked, “I think it’s disheartening for a lot of people, because it reflects on the President. This guy is a perfectly nice guy, but clearly not up to the task of attorney general. And a lot of people say, you know, this reflects very poorly on Bush. Why would he choose him?”
Though Gonzales remains troubling to conservatives, the public at large remains largely indifferent to the whole affair. The Gallup poll taken between April 13 and 15 reported that a relatively modest 53% of those polled were following the issue somewhat or very closely and the public only narrowly favored (41-37%) Gonzales’ resignation. After almost wholly negative coverage of Gonzales’ testimony those numbers may change, prompting further discussion of the relative risks and benefits of retaining him. But the matter may pass as another “inside the beltway” issue that America really cares little about.
Gonzales’ fate remains in the hands of his longtime friend, the President. Then Texas Gov. Bush appointed him general counsel and later to the Texas Supreme Court. By selecting Gonzales for posts as the White House Counsel and then Atty. Gen. Bush followed other presidents who appointed close confidants to these key legal roles. (For example, President Reagan selected as his first attorney general his close friend and advisor William French Smith and JFK tapped his brother.) While this is a well worn path, Roger Pilon of the CATO Institute observes that attorneys general enjoying such close ties to the President are well advised “to be especially careful to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
So long as public opinion is muted and evidence of unethical or illegal conduct is not shown, the President may stick with his confidant. As Sabato notes, Gonzales has “a constituency of one.” That constituent, at least for now, is digging in, showing little inclination to heed advice to oust Gonzales. Dismayed conservatives and nervous Republican senators might take heart: they should remember the fate of FEMA’s Michael D. Brown that came to reckoning very soon after the President said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”