The Los Angeles Times underscores a fact that is becoming increasingly clear: with every new twist of the controversy(ies) involving Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, President George W. Bush’s net political clout is being reduced
As more Republicans called last week on Alberto R. Gonzales to resign, President Bush’s aides began to look beyond the attorney general and focus on preventing the controversy over the firing of federal prosecutors from spreading â€” and endangering Karl Rove, the president’s top political advisor.
“This is not going to go away,” warned Joseph E. DiGenova, a former U.S. attorney in the Reagan administration. “I’m sure the president is going to let it go as long as he can â€¦ but there’s only so much bleeding he can take.”
The fracas over the fired prosecutors reflects a larger underlying problem for Bush: His political standing as president, already battered by the war in Iraq and domestic missteps like the handling of Hurricane Katrina, has only continued to erode since his party lost control of Congress in November.
Initially, the dispute centered on the Justice Department, Gonzales and his top aides. But documents released last week suggested that Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers were also involved in the decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys after the 2004 election. That brought the issue to the threshold of the Oval Office and prompted reporters to ask whether Bush had been involved.
“I want you to be clear here: Don’t go dropping it at the president’s door,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday when asked about Bush’s involvement.
In fact, the question will indeed come right back to Bush. Why? Because he was billed, after he won in 2000, as a NEW kind of President — a Harvard Business School President who’d run the country like he was an efficient CEO. The Clintonistas were portrayed as immature brats who’d look at a zillion issues and not make progress on many of them as they sat around and ate pizza. Bush & Co were the “grown-ups” who’d be back in power.
But now the country is apparently learning what millions of schoolkids have long suspected: the “grown-ups” can be just as flawed as the “kids.” The questions that will keep this mini-scandal (which some have noted centers on a crime that really wasn’t a crime) going on will be (1) what Bush knew, when and how much (did he want to dump prosectors who were not doing enough to go after Democrats or who were going after Republicans?) and (2) if he didn’t, then at best it again underlines the fact that if he were CEO of a company the stockholders would probably be seeking to boot him out by now.
And the bottom line is this: Bush’s clout inside and outside of his party has been decreasing. An extended mini-scandal with headlines (even with talk radio show hosts playing — as usual — defense) is not going to increase his power in Congress. The L.A. Times also notes that Bush’s style and history with Congress have contributed to his loss of standing:
Bush’s diminished popularity, combined with his administration’s disdain for Congress’ view of legislative prerogatives, have given the president a slimmer margin for error â€” even with members of his own party.
“You’ve got Republicans in Congress who have run out their string with him,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the largely conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The shift to Democratic control has accelerated the controversy.
“Elections matter,” Ornstein said. “If the Republicans were still in charge of Congress, even by one vote, the reaction to this would have been that it was just a personnel matter. The administration might still have had a problem, but it would have taken a lot longer to develop.”
Several leading Republicans said they expected Gonzales to resign in the next few weeks.
The problem: when and if Gonzales is hurled over the side (to join Harriet Miers who was hurled over the side when she was up for a Supreme Court nomination, then tossed overboard again last week when she was wrongly blamed for the prosecutors’ flap), MORE damage will be done to Bush.
And if Gonzales stays? There will be a drip-drip-drip as the media and Democrats begin to look into every aspect of what he has done and is doing at the Justice Department.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.