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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Gonzales: No Go

I know I’m weighing in a little late on the Gonzales nomination, but I’m not a big fan of cabinet confirmation fights, as opposed to fights over lifetime judicial appointments, particularly to the Supreme Court.
In fact, I generally think presidents, even those I really dislike, should have significant leeway on cabinet appointments. And in this administration, it’s pretty clear the White House is calling all the important shots anyway. But I would make a big exception for the Attorney General.
It’s a familiar argument, but worth repeating: the AG is not just the president’s top lawyer, and not just head of a cabinet agency; he or she is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, supervising a vast array of prosecutors, investigators, and specialty cops. The AG has enormous power to help or hinder the pursuit of justice in this country, every single day. Sure, every AG reports to the president, but I cannot remember an AG nominee who is simultaneously so ill-equipped to show independence from, and influence in, the White House (Bobby Kennedy was obviously not independent from his brother, but he sure as hell wielded a lot of influence with him).
Gonzales is also, to put it charitably, a bit short in the Legal Heft department as well, owing virtually his entire career to the sponsorship of George W. Bush.
I don’t know whether these two factors alone would be enough to convince me the Senate should reject him, but it doesn’t really matter, because there is, of course, a third factor that’s the clincher: Gonzales’s status as the Poster Boy for Torture.
As it happens, I’m not an absolutist on this subject. I can’t honestly say I’d behave well if I had custody of an al Qaeda operative who was reported to know the time and place of a dirty bomb set to go off in Washington or New York, killing tens of thousands of people and spreading radioactivity to tens of thousands of others.
But Gonzales doesn’t represent the truly hard cases on torture; he stands for the proposition that anything not explicitly prohibited by the administration’s extremely narrow interpretation of U.S. law and international treaties is just aces with him. And as a Washington Post editorial yesterday noted, after stonewalling the Senate Judiciary Committee on the subject initially, in his final hearing he squarely confirmed that this was indeed his position.
If you believe, as I do and I hope you do, that the war on terror is an ideological war in which perceptions of American values and good intentions are in the long run as important as military assets, then confirming the Poster Boy for Torture as Attorney General provides a propaganda victory for Islamic Jihadism that’s potentially just as damaging as those images from Abu Ghraib. Moreover, Gonzales’s confirmation will also reinforce the already dangerous impression that the United States will only obey those rules we get to set ourselves, an impression the administration finds ways to strengthen nearly every day.
Add it all up, and for me at least, the calculus is pretty clear: this guy should not become Attorney General, on the merits, and completely separate from the politics of the thing. As for the politics, some Democrats think we can’t oppose Gonzales because of his ethnicity. But Jesus, folks, if we cannot find ways to appeal to Hispanic Americans without confirming a bad Attorney General, then we don’t deserve their votes in the first place.
But I don’t, for the record, share the view of other Democrats that “standing up” to Bush on Gonzales is some sort of political end in itself, as part of a “strategy” of total opposition to everything Bush proposes on every subject.
Look, I dislike Bush and his administration far more than any I can remember in a fairly long life. I certainly agree that an opposition party must oppose, particularly when they have no power at all, and I definitely want Democrats to oppose the many terrible things these guys are trying to do to our country. But just blindly, and at a uniform decibal level, opposing every single move Bush makes isn’t “standing up for our principles”–it amounts to letting Karl Rove lead us around by the nose and completely determine our course of action, in a way that obscures what we are for.
It is very important that we pick and choose our fights. As a matter of principle more than politics, I believe opposing Alberto Gonzales’s confirmation is a fight worth picking. But count me out of any future witch hunt against Democrats who disagree, and let’s think before we automatically move on to a massive campaign to fight like banshees against every dim hack Bush tries to appoint to relatively unimportant posts.

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