Score another one for the politics of personal destruction. Democrats have managed to run out of town one of President Bush’s longest serving aides from Texas — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.’ But they may want to put the champagne glasses down because this resignation may end up for the Democrats being a case of “be careful what you ask for.”
For months the Democrats have been clamoring for Gonzales’ resignation. And for months he and the White House have been giving back a figurative flip of the hand. Even major media critics such as the New York Times and the Washington Post recently came to accept that Gonzales was here to stay.
But this didn’t stop senior Democrats and their insurgents in the blogosphere. They managed to escalate things to the point of a potential constitutional crisis between the Legislative and the Executive Branch. While there were many high minded claims made about the fight, the truth is for Democrats the battle over Gonzales was an essential tool in making up for signature failures by the Democratic controlled Congress: slow-walking ethics reform, inability to get the appropriations process on track, and having no real plan for dealing with the war in Iraq.
And what a great tool it was. But while Attorney General Gonzales proved to be a remarkably effective whipping boy for Washington Democrats, his departure could potentially leave Democrats without any distractions to turn the focus away from themselves and their own lack of achievements.
The 110th Congress has been a remarkable failure up to this date — energy independence, taxes, appropriations, intelligence reform — all are in various states of disarray. In fact, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have mismanaged Congress so effectively that they’ve quietly accomplished what many thought was impossible, a 19 percent approval rating for Congress. And with Gonzales out of the picture the media will likely spend more time seeking answers about their leadership skills or lack thereof.
Additionally, without the fight over Gonzales, Democrats in Washington will actually be accountable for their actions in two areas in particular — Iraq and national security. While the virulent anti-war wing of their party wants a unilateral removal of American troops, many Democrats realized early on that was impractical and even dangerous. They didn’t however dare to admit this to their Jacobin supporters nor did they wish to take any pressure off of Republicans.
Early on after the elections, the anti-war wing of the party signaled that they would punish Democrats if they didn’t act accordingly. And Gonzales proved to be essential to get them past that point. Now that he’s leaving town, many of these activists are going to start clamoring for action by the Democrats — action that Democrats have been loath to admit was never going to happen. The other part of this equation involves national security — in particular anti-terrorism measures. Almost every major Democrat candidate running for President is opposed to the strong measures put forward by the White House as part of the recent Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reform and so did a majority of House Democrats. In the backdrop of the Gonzales fight, Democrats were free to do this with impunity and only at the last minute offered up a face saving 6 month trial period for these updates. They’ve done this all year without so much as a whimper from the press. Now that Gonzales can’t be used as their pretext, they’ll likely have to explain why their party has an almost visceral hostility to measures that safeguard the American people.
Another consequence of Gonzales’ departure is that naming a replacement will give President Bush a needed opportunity to consolidate support among conservatives. Especially after the immigration debacle, the President has needed to make a major effort to reach out to the activists within his own party. This effort could happen a couple of ways: by the naming of the replacement or by announcing a major new domestic policy. On the one hand, the President could name Ted Olson as Gonzales’ replacement. Conservatives would be excited and even if a fight from the left ensued it would galvanize Republicans. More importantly the fight would also reveal to the rest of America how much invested the Democrats are in for obstructionism solely for its own sake. Such a revelation would likely add additional clarity to the ongoing obstruction of President Bush’s judicial nominees. A win here would likely raise the President’s approval ratings and could get more of his nominees confirmed.
But the president — having named Solicitor General Clement as acting Attorney General — seems more inclined to avoid a politically-regenerating fight. But President Bush could still focus his energies on a major policy announcement in the fall, such as a push for a new federal flat tax or the creation of a new Grace Commission tasked with the responsibility of eliminating wasteful government programs. Doing either would signal a commitment to push conservative principles for the duration of his term. And doing so without being in the midst of an ongoing fight over Gonzales would mean that Democrats would be forced to fight on territory they aren’t used to. A win here would confound the punditry and would tremendously reinvigorate Mr. Bush’s presidency.
Democrats have gotten comfortable pretending that the only problem facing America was the competence and mendacity of Alberto Gonzales. Pretending to long for the days of John Ashcroft as Attorney General worked for a season. But now things have changed and if they’re not careful, Democrats will likely be the saddest to see Gonzales go.