When you’re running behind, that’s when to quit. That’s the message the president is getting from those who urge him to make a go-along-to-get-along appointment to replace Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general. His decision may be announced as early as today.
After Gonzales’ resignation speech, it took less than five minutes for CNN to suggest that President Bush had a chance to “reach out to Democrats.” And less than 15 minutes after Gonzales’ speech, MSNBC put Democratic strategist Richard Goodwin on the air to suggest that Bush pick “a moderate Republican or even a Democrat. That would not be a bad idea at this point.”
Liberal commentators and, I’m sure, spineless Republican consultants are advising the president to attempt to make peace with such critics as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) by naming a nonpartisan, inoffensive fellow like Edward Levi, whom President Ford picked as AG in the wake of Watergate and of the 1974 election of a left-wing majority in Congress. Of course, Levi’s appointment did nothing to appease the liberal Democrats and deprived Ford of a legitimate political weapon against Democratic corruption. Levi wasn’t even the “moderate” he was advertised to be; he pushed Ford into appointing to the U.S. Supreme Court the radical John Paul Stevens, who remains there today.
Rather than appease the Democrats -- or, just as bad, pick another Gonzales, someone selected for his personal ties to the Bush organization -- the president should use this appointment to restore his relevancy and revive the Republican coalition by deliberately picking an ideological fight with the Democrats. Here’s my advice:
* The Democrats cannot be appeased, so don’t try. Instead, nominate someone with a record of toughness on law-and-order issues who will not shy away from investigating government corruption (including vote fraud), and who will push for the nomination of highly qualified judges who faithfully follow the law rather than making it up as they go along.
* If the Democrats block the confirmation, expose them for their partisanship, for their refusal to be tough on law enforcement out of fear that they will upset their own base, and for their efforts to use the unelected judiciary to create policies that would never be enacted through a democratic process.
* If they don’t confirm the first nominee, send up another, making sure that he or she is “worse” (from the Democrats’ perspective) than the first one. If they block that one, do it again.
The Republican base is demoralized. It is disgusted with the buffoonery and wimpiness of Washington Republicans. In the 2006 election, enough of these activists sat out the election or even voted for moderate Democrats, such as Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), that Democrats took control of Congress. Now, even the Democrats’ nomination for president of a divisive figure like Hillary Clinton will not be enough to prevent the left from winning both Congress and the White House -- and control of the judiciary -- in the 2008 election. Indeed, after the next election, Democrats and left-leaning Republicans could forge a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
If the Republican Party is to fight its way back, the president must fight his way out of the low 30s in his approval ratings and back into the 50s. Much depends on the course of the war in Iraq, but the beginning of political recovery will come with a take-no-prisoners nominee for attorney general.
And there is one other way in which the president’s AG nomination could take an issue away from the Democrats and strengthen the Republican base. He can select someone with a record of support for the basic liberties that are the birthright of the American people.
The administration has treated with disdain those who express concern over violation of these liberties. The president needs to bring libertarian-minded conservatives back into the GOP fold by nominating someone who has a sound grasp of constitutional freedoms, yet who can also formulate and explain necessary law-and-order policies that meet constitutional standards.
Bush once promised to be a “compassionate conservative” who would work with the Democrats in Washington the way he had worked with the Democrats in Texas. He would be “a uniter, not a divider.” He worked with Teddy Kennedy to create the No Child Left Behind Act, publicly praised the White House service of Bill and Hillary Clinton, squelched investigations of the Clinton pardons and the Sandy “Burglar” Berger case, and he and his father rehabilitated the reputation of former President Clinton by putting him at the forefront of international relief efforts. For all Bush’s efforts to build goodwill, what did he get? He became the most vilified president since Richard Nixon.
The time to change course is now, or never. If the president picks a fight over this nomination by appointing a qualified conservative, the GOP base will stand with him. If he tries conciliation again, expecting a different result, he will become the lamest of lame ducks.