IT'S TOO EARLY TO SAY whether any laws were broken in the Bush administration's dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys, a purge that was justified as an exercise of presidential power though both President Bush and his attorney general profess to be ignorant of the details of the firings. But even assuming that laws weren't broken, the affair is a disaster for the administration, one that recalls Talleyrand's observation: "This is worse than a crime, it's a blunder."
That is why this scandal (and the preceding week's Walter Reed scandal) loom so large, even among some Republican lawmakers — they fit into a larger pattern of incompetence on the part of this administration. Any confidence the American people or Congress once had in the administration's capabilities has long since been depleted.
It wasn't always so. Early on, this administration was perceived — by ideological friends and foes alike — as a paragon of competence. Names like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and even Rice (who knew?) were supposed to signal steady, experienced leadership. How far we've come.
The botched, ill-planned occupation of Iraq will go down as the administration's capital blunder. It stemmed from a cavalier arrogance, a belief that when you are on the right side of history, the details will take care of themselves. The sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina and the constitutional shortcuts in the war on terror also qualify.
In a parliamentary system, the lack of confidence this administration has inspired would result in a change of government. But in the American system, the Bush presidency lives on, like a battered piata still hanging by the rope. New Cabinet members Henry M. Paulson Jr. at Treasury and Robert M. Gates at Defense have introduced some new credibility, but this is generally a discredited lot that must lead a divided nation.
It may develop that the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys was not only clumsy but corrupt. E-mails released by the administration raise the possibility that at least some of the targeted prosecutors were faulted not for underperformance but for not being "loyal Bushies" (to quote Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales' recently cashiered aide, D. Kyle Sampson) in the sinister sense of bending justice to the Republican Party's interests.
But consider this affair simply from a management standpoint. The dismissals had their genesis, it seems, in a harebrained proposal in the White House that the just-reelected Bush dismiss all 93 U.S. attorneys. This idea morphed into a selective purge of what Sampson called "underperforming" prosecutors. What is notable about this reconstruction is that a consequential decision — the replacement of federal prosecutors — was being bandied about in almost casual terms by political operatives and staffers like Sampson.
Michael Dukakis was ridiculed for insisting that the 1988 presidential election, in which he was trounced by George H.W. Bush, "isn't about ideology, it's about competence." He was on to something. Whatever their politics, Americans prefer a government in which leaders and followers alike know what is going on and strive to minimize mistakes — if only for their own protection.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times