Alberto Gonzales stepped down as Attorney General on Monday. It was hard to tell who was more delighted — Democrats or Republicans.
For Democrats, it was a triumph of their strategy centered largely on his role and subsequent testimony about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. As presidential candidate John Edwards put it: "Better late than never." Chuck Schumer declared: "It has been a long and difficult struggle but at last, the attorney general has done the right thing and stepped down.” Showing no indication the Democrats would be deprived of their 24/7 investigation operation, Harry Reid had this to say: “Alberto Gonzales was never the right man for this job. He lacked independence, he lacked judgment, and he lacked the spine to say no to Karl Rove. This resignation is not the end of the story. Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House.”
But if Democrats were gloating, Republicans seemed relieved. Sen. Pete Domenici (N.M.)had this to say: "The resignation of Alberto Gonzales had become inevitable. His situation was a distraction to the Department of Justice and its attempt to carry out its important duties." Sen. Cornyn offered this: “His mistake was underestimating the ferocity of relentless partisan attacks and not preparing more to address them.” Conservative commentators from a variety of print and online publications shed no tears either. “Overdue” was a frequent comment.
For conservatives Gonzales was never a favorite. His defense of continued affirmative action in key 2003 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court had earned the criticism of conservative legal scholars. He seemed ineffective at best in explaining the rationale for terrorism surveillance and for the administration’s positions on a host of issues relating to the War on Terror. His handling of the U.S. attorneys firings was, bluntly speaking, an embarrassment. While continuing to insist that President Bush had every right to replace U.S. attorneys at will Republicans across the board found it difficult if not impossible, to defend his meandering testimony and apparently contradictory statements. The most charitable reading only lead to the conclusion that he was not in charge of the Justice Department.
But what does this painful episode say about President Bush and what lessons does it hold for presidential hopefuls? First and foremost, loyalty should never trump competency. Clearly President Bush had a longstanding friendship with Gonzales from his days as Governor of Texas. He badly wanted Gonzales, whose personal rise from humble beginnings is an American success story, on the Supreme Court. But a rigorous intellect, impressive administrative abilities and powerful rhetorical skills were absent. As a result, Gonzales failed in his role and failed his friend and President. Better an independent minded and skilled advisor than a mediocre but loyal one.
Second, President Bush — whether on Harriet Miers, the Dubai Port deal or Alberto Gonzales — has shown a disturbing tendency to stick with a losing hand dismiss advice of his fellow Republicans and then cave when even he is convinced all is lost. Although all indications are that Gonzales finally jumped on his own, his fellow Republicans would readily acknowledge that he should have left long ago. Insisting on holding a losing hand does nothing to improve a President’s standing with his foes or build confidence with his allies. Know when to fold and fold sooner rather than later is good advice for poker and politics.
Lastly, a Democratic Congress will continue to pose challenges for the remainder of the Bush presidency and if a Republican is elected quite possibly for a good portion of his tenure as well. That demands cabinet officials and advisors who combine toughness and dedication to the administration’s policy objectives with the ability to navigate and indeed gain the respect, if not the affection, of Democrats in Congress. In evaluating a successor to Gonzales (or for Republican presidential hopeful considering potential appointees) the person who can withstand the withering attacks of a Chuck Schumer with aplomb and grace will be in high demand.
Where does President Bush go from here? For now highly esteemed Solicitor General Paul Clement has the role of Acting Attorney General. Whether he remains in that role permanently or another appointee must undergo the torture of a confirmation hearing remains to be seen. For now, Republicans and Democrats can breathe a sigh of relief that the Justice Department is in better hands this week than last.