WASHINGTON -- Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, intensely ambitious and partisan, was uncharacteristically caught off balance. He had worked so amiably on federal judgeships in his state with Alberto Gonzales as White House counsel that the senator effusively endorsed his nomination as attorney general. Now, weeks later, Schumer was not only criticizing Gonzales but opposing his confirmation.
How did a four-year relationship suddenly sour? There was no revelation about Gonzales causing scales to fall from Schumer's eyes. Instead, the inner circle of Senate Democrats determined that the previously non-controversial Mexican-American from Texas would be the prime target of President Bush's second term nominations. Schumer, caught leaning the wrong way on a party matter, recovered and was one of 35 Democrats (out of 41 present) plus one nominal independent who voted last Thursday against Gonzales.
This is confirmation politics, an especially noxious form of partisanship emerging during the current Bush presidency. Unlike the parallel Democratic campaign to block confirmation of conservative judges, there is no effort to prevent non-judicial nominees from taking office. Rather, it spotlights negative Bush issues -- prisoner abuse for Gonzales -- by attacking the failed policy's supposed architect.
The Democrats' course was tipped off Jan. 19 by Sen. Joseph Biden during Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Condoleezza Rice's nomination as secretary of state. Biden, the committee's ranking Democrat, told Rice he would vote for her with "frustration" and "reservation" because "I believe strongly the president is entitled to his Cabinet." Yet, a week later, he opposed Gonzales in committee.
Actually, Biden has a long record of opposing Republican non-judicial nominees. In the elder George Bush's administration, he voted against John Tower for secretary of defense and Robert Gates for CIA director, as well as several lesser nominees.
Biden's propensity to vote no increased during the second Bush's administration as Senate Democrats, in the minority, used the confirmation process to underline issues. Far from giving the new president the benefit of the doubt, Biden in 2001 voted against John Ashcroft for attorney general, Gale Norton for secretary of the interior, Theodore Olson for solicitor general and John Bolton for under secretary of state.