On Jan. 6, 2005, newly elected Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of Alberto Gonzales. (Full disclosure: I worked for Ken Salazar’s election campaign in 2004.) Here is an excerpt from Senator Salazar’s brief remarks: “Judge Gonzales has indicated his willingness to balance out the needs for national security, while at the same time maintaining the important, fundamental civil liberties of our nation.”
A little more than two and a half years later, Gonzales has resigned after a tenure marked by a lot of willingness to justify his actions under the umbrella of national security — and, by all accounts, not much concern for “fundamental civil liberties.” During his time in office, his most public scandal, involving the dismissal of assistant U.S. attorneys, concealed his unwavering support for the USA PATRIOT Act and his disturbing advocacy of torture both before and during his time as attorney general.
The New York Times recently published an article detailing the Justice Department’s authorization of severe torture under Gonzales. The internal memos revealed directly contradict Gonzales’ 2004 claim in a New York Times op-ed that “the abuse of any prisoner is abhorrent,” an assertion that, in various forms, became the Justice Department’s default public statement on torture.
It’s easy to blame the disgraceful and damaging series of events on an overzealous attorney general and an ignorant (willfully or not) president. But the problem is more structural. George W. Bush’s second term is a unique animal in modern American political history. He, like Clinton, Reagan and Eisenhower, cannot run for a third term. But unlike those three former presidents, Bush lacks a prospective successor within his own administration. Bush’s vice president is not among the candidates for his party’s presidential nomination, nor is his secretary of state, nor indeed any official from his administration. The result is an administration that is undemocratic to an unprecedented degree for the simple reason that it has nothing to lose in terms of electoral votes.
Certainly, Bush represents the Republican Party. And as we saw during the midterm elections, the Republican Party has already lost quite a chunk of its public support, thanks largely to the ability of Democrats to capitalize on the American population’s unhappiness with its chief executive. Barring a meltdown or the success of a sleazy electoral college reapportionment ploy in California, a Democrat seems likely to take the White House in 2008. But whoever the Democratic nominee happens to be, his (or her) opponent will be someone who, at one point or another, has possessed legitimate “outsider credentials” with regard to the Bush White House and the Republican Party as a whole. And as long as that situation persists, the American people have lost control of their traditional leash on the executive: the ballot box.
On Nov. 4, 2008, we won’t have an opportunity to vote for or against the Bush administration. The Democratic candidate will probably try to make the election a referendum on the last eight years, and the Republican candidate will probably do his best to distance himself from the current president in some meaningful way (unless allying oneself with a president whose current approval rating is 32 percent somehow becomes a winning strategy in the next year). But the Bush administration is leaving no matter what. The current members of this administration don’t seem like candidates for jobs in the next one. And so Bush has carte blanche until January 2009, supported by an increasingly conservative judiciary and checked only by a narrowly Democratic Congress that hasn’t scored many policy victories over Bush so far.
What does Bush’s lame-duck nature have to do with Gonzales? Right now, Gonzales is the most visible product of it. He was appointed after Bush’s 2004 victory, on a 60-36 party-line vote with a few Democrats crossing the aisle. Since then, he has defied the will of the courts and the legislature, supported some questionable constitutional decisions and apparently tried to politicize the jobs of assistant U.S. attorneys. And now he’s gone, but his tarnished legacy will remain.
Ken Salazar, a former Colorado attorney general, should have known better than to support someone who owes his political career to repeated appointments by one man. In Colorado, as in most states, the people elect the attorney general. Alberto Gonzales has never been elected in his life. He has been nominated by Bush to every public post he has ever held, confirmed by Republican legislatures in Texas and Washington, D.C.
Appointed by a president with nothing to lose, he failed spectacularly at his job and left a mess for future administrations to clean up. Salazar ultimately saw his error and began calling for Gonzales’ resignation in May. Whether America has seen the error of allowing its officials to escape democratic oversight remains to be seen.
Xan White is a junior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.