"It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder," a French politician once observed. That may be true of the White House's handling of the controversy surrounding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Gonzales is in a tough political situation for two reasons. First, he has no broad base of support within the Republican Party. His base consists of one individual, President Bush. "What we're talking about is a person who has become a liability to the president, but the president cares about him deeply," said Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution. "So what's the equation? Do you throw him overboard? The president has done it before—with Harriet Miers."
After Bush's conservative base revolted against the president's efforts to get Miers on the Supreme Court, Bush allowed her to withdraw from contention. When Bush let it be known that he was considering nominating Gonzales to the Supreme Court, conservatives criticized Gonzales as insufficiently opposed to abortion rights.
Gonzales's second problem is that Bush is politically weak. If the president's job ratings were high, that might be enough to save Gonzales. But they're not. Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., said, "Many Republican senators have expressed concerns [about Gonzales] on the record. And there are a lot of others that talk very frankly in private conversations." Sununu is one of two Republican senators who have called for Gonzales to go. The other is Gordon Smith of Oregon. Both are up for re-election next year in Democratic-leaning states.
There was nothing illegal about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. The president has the right to fire federal prosecutors. But the firings became a scandal because they were handled so badly. Had Bush dismissed the attorneys when he began his second term in 2005, with the Republicans still in control of Congress, he might have avoided a scandal. But he did it at the worst possible political moment, just after the 2006 midterm elections in which Democrats took over Congress and gained subpoena power.
At a speech in Alabama, Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, claimed that Democrats are forgetting that their own party did the same thing. "I would simply ask that everybody who's playing politics with this be asked to comment about what they think about the removal of 123 U.S. attorneys during the previous administration," he said.
But the charge that "everybody does it" will not get Republicans off the hook. "What was the real reason why these eight U.S. attorneys were fired, especially in light of the fact that six of the eight were involved in prosecuting corruption?" asks Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. It is one thing for the administration to fire a U.S. attorney who is unsupportive of the president's agenda on, say, immigration. It is something entirely different to fire prosecutors investigating possible corruption—and to give false and misleading information to Congress and to the public about the reasons for the dismissals.
Bush accused Democrats of politicizing the issue. "The initial response by Democrats, unfortunately, shows some appear more interested in scoring political points than in learning the facts," he charged. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, pointed out that "Senator Charles Schumer, who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, seems to be using this issue to raise money on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Web site."
Democrats, meanwhile, ran a radio ad attacking Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. "According to testimony from the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee," the ad says, "Congresswoman Heather Wil-son called U.S. Attorney David Iglesias and pressured him concerning a federal corruption investigation."
Democrats are taking the risk of looking too political themselves and inadvertently encouraging voters to echo Rove's sentiment: "This, to my mind, is a lot of politics."
But before that happens, Republicans may start clamoring openly for Gonzales to go. That will happen if Republicans feel the scandal has become politically threatening to them. Many have bad memories of what happened with Donald Rumsfeld. They defended the Defense secretary and paid a steep political price for it—only to see Bush dump Rumsfeld after the damage was done.