WASHINGTON -- Alberto Gonzales has to go. I say this with no pleasure -- he's a decent and honorable man -- and without the slightest expectation that his departure will blunt the Democratic assault on the Bush administration over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. In fact, it will probably inflame their bloodlust, which is why the president might want to hang on to Gonzales at least through this crisis. That might be tactically wise. But in time, and the sooner the better, Gonzales must resign.
It's not a question of probity, but of competence. Gonzales has allowed a scandal to be created where there was none. That is quite an achievement. He had a two-foot putt and he muffed it.
How could he allow his aides to go to Capitol Hill unprepared and misinformed and therefore give inaccurate and misleading testimony? How could Gonzales permit his deputy to say that the prosecutors were fired for performance reasons when all he had to say was that U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and the president wanted them replaced?
And why did Gonzales have to claim that the firings were done with no coordination with the White House? That's absurd. Why shouldn't there be White House involvement? That is nothing to be defensive about. Does anyone imagine that Janet Reno fired all 93 U.S. attorneys in March 1993, giving them all of 10 days to clear out, without White House involvement?
The Bush administration fired eight. Democrats are charging this was done for reasons of politics, and that politics have no place in the legal system. This is laughable. U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president -- and, by tradition, are recommended by home state politicians of the same party, not by a group of judges or a committee of the American Bar Association. Which makes their appointment entirely political.
OK, say the accusers, but once you've made the appointments, they should be left to pursue justice on their own. It's nice to see that Sen. Charles Schumer, who is using this phony scandal to raise funds for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has suddenly adopted a Platonic view of justice. But the fact is that there are thousands of laws on the books and only finite resources for any prosecutor to deploy, which means that one must have priorities about which laws to emphasize and which crimes to preferentially pursue.
Those decisions are essentially political. And they are decided by elections in which both parties spell out very clearly their law enforcement priorities. Are you going to allocate prosecutorial resources more to drug dealing or tax cheating? To street crime or corporate malfeasance? To illegal immigration or illegal pollution? If you're a Democrat today, you call the choice "political" to confer a sense of illegitimacy. If you're a neutral observer, you call the choice a set of law enforcement priorities reflecting the policy preferences of the winner of the last presidential election.
For example, both voter intimidation and voter fraud are illegal. The Democrats have a particular interest in the former because they see it diminishing their turnout, while Republicans are particularly interested in the latter because they see it as inflating the Democratic tally. The Bush administration apparently was dismayed that some of these fired attorneys were not vigorous enough in pursuing voter fraud.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Pursuing voter fraud is not, as The New York Times pretends, a euphemism for suppressing the vote of minorities and poor people. It is a mechanism for suppressing the vote of (among other phantoms) dead people. Conservatives have a healthy respect for the opinion of dead people -- conservatives revere tradition, which Chesterton once defined as "the democracy of the dead" -- but they draw the line at posthumous voting.
If the White House decides that a U.S. attorney is showing insufficient zeal in pursuing voter fraud--or the death penalty or illegal immigration or drug dealing-- it has the perfect right to fire him. There is only one impermissible reason for presidential intervention: to sabotage an active investigation. That is obstruction of justice. Until the Democrats come up with any real evidence of that--and they have not--this affair remains a pseudo-scandal. Which would never have developed had Gonzales made the easy and obvious case from day one.