A President All Alone
Two weeks earlier on Capitol Hill, there was a groundswell of Republican demands -- public and private -- that President Bush pardon Scooter Libby. Last week, as Alberto Gonzales came under withering Democratic fire, there were no public GOP declarations of support amid private predictions of the attorney general's demise.
Republican leaders in Congress, who asked not to be quoted by name, predicted early last week that Gonzales would fall because the Justice Department botched the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. By week's end, they stipulated that the president would not sack his longtime aide and that Gonzales would leave only on his own initiative. But there was still an ominous lack of congressional support for the attorney general.
"Gonzales never has developed a base of support for himself up here," a House Republican leader told me. But this is less a Gonzales problem than a Bush problem. With nearly two years remaining in his presidency, George W. Bush is alone. In half a century, I have not seen a president so isolated from his own party in Congress -- not Jimmy Carter, not even Richard Nixon as he faced impeachment.
Republicans in Congress do not trust their president to protect them. That alone is sufficient reason to withhold statements of support for Gonzales, because such a gesture could be quickly followed by his resignation under pressure. Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.), the highly regarded young chairman of the House Republican Conference, praised Donald Rumsfeld in November only to see him sacked shortly thereafter.
But not many Republican lawmakers would speak up for Gonzales even if they were sure Bush would stick with him. He is the least popular Cabinet member on Capitol Hill, even more disliked than Rumsfeld was. The word most often used by Republicans to describe the management of the Justice Department under Gonzales is "incompetent."
Attorneys general in recent decades have ranged from skilled political operatives close to the president (most notably Bobby Kennedy under John F. Kennedy) to nonpolitical lawyers detached from the president (such as Ed Levi under Gerald Ford). Gonzales is surely close to Bush, but nobody would accuse him of being skilled at politics. He puzzled and alarmed conservatives with a January speech in which he claimed that he would take over from the White House the selection of future federal judicial nominees.
The saving grace that some Republicans find in the dispute over U.S. attorneys is that, at least temporarily, it draws attention away from debate over an unpopular war. But the overriding feeling in the Republican cloakroom is that the Justice Department and the White House could not have been more inept in dealing with the president's unquestioned right to appoint -- and replace -- federal prosecutors.
The I-word (incompetence) is also used by Republicans in describing the Bush administration generally. Several of them I talked to cited a trifecta of incompetence: the Walter Reed hospital scandal, the FBI's misuse of the USA Patriot Act and the U.S. attorneys firing fiasco. "We always have claimed that we were the party of better management," one House leader told me. "How can we claim that anymore?"
The reconstruction of the Bush administration after the president's reelection in 2004, though a year late, clearly improved his team. Yet the addition of extraordinary public servants Josh Bolten, Tony Snow and Rob Portman has not changed the image of incompetence.
A few Republicans blame incessant attacks from the new Democratic majority in Congress for that image. Many more say today's problems in the administration derive from the continuing impact of yesterday's mistakes. The answer that is not entertained by the president's most severe GOP critics, even when not speaking for quotation, is that this is just the governing style of George W. Bush and will not change while he is in the Oval Office.
Regarding Libby and Gonzales, unofficial word from the White House is not reassuring. One credible source says the president will never -- not even on the way out of office in January 2009 -- pardon Libby. Another equally good source says the president will never ask Gonzales to resign. That exactly reverses the prevailing Republican opinion in Congress. Bush is alone.
© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.