President Bush’s announcement of the name of the person who would replace Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was eagerly anticipated by many in Washington. Gonzales, caricatured as inept and bumbling by critics of the President, had decided in August that he wouldn’t continue in his designated role as Washington’s whipping boy du jour.
In the end the President’s choice of Judge Michael Mukasey wasn’t a surprise as much as it was a stinging acknowledgement of the complete political breakdown that has taken place in Washington – a breakdown that increasingly is trampling all over the executive’s appointment power. If after 2008 the Democrats win the White House will they regret the precedent that they are helping to establish?
Judge Michael Mukasey by all accounts is a seasoned law and order conservative. He was widely admired as a judge of integrity and independence during the nearly 20 years he was on the bench. His rulings demonstrated that he understands that criminals must be held responsible for their actions, and his reserved style reveals a high regard for he rule of law. He has first hand experience dealing with the international terrorist threat – first as a trial judge of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so called “Blind Sheik” who masterminded the first attack on the World Trade Center and of convicted Al-Qaeda conspirator Jose Padilla. He is very likely to command the respect of the men and women who work at the Department of Justice.
These admirable qualities are commendable and in other contexts would go without any need for qualification. However it is precisely the circumstances of his selection that merit comment. Judge Mukasey’s selection signals a retreat from the commitment of the President to retain full authority over the direction of his own administration as well as a signature example of over-reach on the part of Congress – in particular Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – in encroaching on executive duties.
Nominations and appointments are a key power of the President; in fact it is one of the crucial ingredients for a successful presidency. Being able to pick the men and women who will carry out the President’s agenda is vital. Yet imagine a world where that choice didn’t exist or was severely compromised. Imagine a world where the opposition party even went so far as to choose the President’s Chief of Staff. While extreme – since this is not a Senate confirmed position – this is the basic principle at stake.