With the resignations Tuesday of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, President Bush can begin to make good on his pledge to reach out to the half of the country that didn’t vote for him. Relieved of the burden of running for reelection, Bush is now free to pick a more centrist attorney general who will depoliticize law enforcement. Moreover, if Bush’s talk of bipartisanship is more than empty rhetoric, his needed overhaul of his Cabinet should not stop there.
Few will mourn the departure of an attorney general tapped by Bush in 2000 to appease the GOP’s socially conservative base. Ashcroft invariably staked out the most obtusely hard-line positions, whether it was restricting civil liberties with the Patriot Act or attempting to eviscerate an Oregon law authorizing doctors to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide. Not only did the Justice Department suffer embarrassing setbacks in terrorism cases it brought in Detroit and Idaho, but in May 2004 a San Francisco federal appeals court rebuked Ashcroft for his “unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers.” Ashcroft is likely to be remembered as the most controversial attorney general since Woodrow Wilson’s A. Mitchell Palmer, who whipped up the Red Scare after World War I.
Given Ashcroft’s miserable record, his successor can only look good by comparison. Among the names being mentioned as possible successors are Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot; a White House counsel to the first President Bush, C. Boyden Gray; and Larry D. Thompson, Ashcroft’s former deputy. But the president could help himself most by confounding his critics and naming a respected Democrat to the job, someone of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell’s stature. This would signal that in his second term Bush does not intend to treat the Justice Department as part of his political operation.
The same principle of moderation should apply to foreign policy. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld should be encouraged to pursue other interests. Bush would vastly enhance the credibility of his national security team if he offered the job to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Replacing Rumsfeld with Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor, wouldn’t help on the credibility front. Bush might want to bring on board Richard Haass, a skeptic on the Iraq war who ran the largely ignored State Department policy planning staff and now heads the Council on Foreign Relations. Come to think of it, Haass could replace Rice at the National Security Council.
While we’re at it, wouldn’t Dick Cheney like to spend more time with his family?