Attorney general replacements offer little hope

By Freedom Newspapers

The surprise resignation — what took him so long? — of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggests a curious pattern in the Bush administration.

A Cabinet official is seriously criticized, for reasons good and bad, and defends himself poorly. Calls proliferate for resignation or impeachment or prosecution/torture/execution, but the president stands by his man, who vows never to leave under fire.

Then, weeks or months later, when there’s no discernible political gain (and perhaps a loss) the embattled Cabinet member resigns.

President Bush, of course, is famously loyal to those who are loyal to him, and few have been loyal for longer than Alberto Gonzales, who joined his staff in 1994 in Texas.

Loyalty is a personally attractive trait, but it can sometimes cloud one’s judgment, and it has been clear for some time that Alberto Gonzales was unsuited to be attorney general, just as Harriet Miers was unsuitable as a potential Supreme Court justice.

Perhaps there was some political timing in this resignation. Congress is in recess, so several perpetually disgruntled Democrats were not in Washington.

But they all have the wire services and major network correspondents on speed-dial, so the good-bye-and-good-riddance quotes flowed profusely anyway. So unless the president has in mind a recess appointment who would not require confirmation — which would enrage the Washington establishment, but what has he to lose on that front anymore? — the timing of this resignation seems curious.

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform said he believes it “had become clear that (Gonzales) was so much the focus of hostile attention that he could accomplish little or nothing.” That’s as close to a plausible explanation as we have heard.

John Eastman, dean of the law school at Chapman University, said Gonzales was most harshly criticized for the firing of several U.S. attorneys, which was justifiable, while his egregiously expansive view of the power of the federal government in domestic matters — from the interpretation of the Endangered Species Act to seizing authority over ditches as “navigable waters” to defending affirmative action — got less attention than was warranted.

Perhaps that’s just politics as usual; the trivial but easily grasped trumps substantive concerns every time.

It’s difficult to develop much enthusiasm for any of the potential replacement candidates who have been mentioned most prominently.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had a fairly distinguished reputation as a lawyer and judge until he took his current position. But if he were appointed attorney general his tenure at Homeland Security, especially during Katrina, would become an issue. And appointment of a successor would make for a second contentious set of hearings.

A few people, including legal affairs analyst Timothy Lynch at the libertarian Cato Institute, have suggested that former solicitor general and longtime Washington hand Theodore Olsen might be confirmable with less controversy than some. He has supported many of the controversial power grabs by the Bush administration, but he also has a reputation for independence.

A senator or former senator might survive confirmation hearings unscathed. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s name has come up, but it’s hard to see him leaving a safe Senate seat. Former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, edged out last fall, might be a viable candidate. A few people have even suggested bringing back John Ashcroft, a former senator and Gonzales’ predecessor as attorney general.

Eastman suggested former federal appellate judge Michael Luttig, now general counsel at Boeing, a solid conservative who has also criticized the Bush administration from a conservative perspective in a couple of decisions, establishing a reputation for independence.

One news story mentioned former Newport Beach Rep. Chris Cox, but it’s difficult to imagine him leaving the chairmanship of the Securities and Exchange Commission for such a politically contentious post.

We would love to see former California Supreme Court justice and federal appellate judge Janice Brown in the post, or Civil Rights Commission member Gail Herriot. University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein understands federalism and the proper limits of federal power as well as anybody in the country. But these are unlikely candidates.

Of those that seem somewhat feasible, Michael Luttig might be the least-objectionable candidate.