WASHINGTON -- Two weeks earlier on Capitol Hill, there was a groundswell of Republican demands -- public and private -- that President Bush pardon the convicted Scooter Libby. Last week, as Alberto Gonzales came under withering Democratic fire, there were no public GOP declarations of support amid private predictions of the attorney general's demise.
Republican leaders in Congress (asking not to be quoted by name) early last week predicted Gonzales would fall because the Justice Department botched firing eight U.S. attorneys. By week's end, they stipulated that the president would not sack his longtime aide and that Gonzales would leave only on his own initiative. But there was still an ominous lack of congressional support for the attorney general.
"Gonzales never has developed a base of support for himself up here," a House Republican leader told me. But this is less a Gonzales problem than a Bush problem. With nearly two years remaining in his presidency, George W. Bush is alone. In half a century, I have not seen a president so isolated from his own party in Congress -- not Jimmy Carter, not even Richard Nixon as he faced impeachment.
Republicans in Congress do not trust their president to protect them. That alone is sufficient reason to withhold statements of support for Gonzales, when such a gesture could be quickly followed by his resignation under pressure. Rep. Adam Putnam, the highly regarded young chairman of the House Republican Conference, praised Donald Rumsfeld last November, only to find him sacked shortly thereafter.
But not many Republican lawmakers would speak up for Gonzales even if they were sure Bush would stick with him. He is the least popular Cabinet member on Capitol Hill, even more disliked than Rumsfeld had been. The word most often used by Republicans in describing the management of the Justice Department under Gonzales is "incompetent."
Attorneys general in recent years have ranged from skilled political operatives close to the president (most notably Bobby Kennedy under John F. Kennedy) to non-political lawyers detached from the president (such as Ed Levi under Gerald Ford). Gonzales is surely close to Bush, but nobody has accused him of being skilled at politics. He puzzled and alarmed conservatives with a January public speech in which he claimed that he would take over from the White House the selection of future federal nominees.
The saving grace that some Republicans find in the dispute over U.S. attorneys is that, at least temporarily, it blurs debate over an unpopular war. But the overriding feeling in the Republican cloakroom is that the Justice Department and the White House could not have been more inept in dealing with the president's unquestioned right to appoint -- and replace -- federal prosecutors.
The I-word (for incompetence) is used by Republicans in describing the Bush administration generally. Several of them I talked to described a trifecta of incompetence: the Walter Reed hospital scandal, the FBI's misuse of the Patriot Act and the U.S. attorneys firing fiasco. "We always have claimed that we were the party of better management," one House leader told me. "How can we claim that anymore?"
The reconstruction of his government after Bush's re-election in 2004, though a year late, clearly improved the president's team. Yet the addition of extraordinary public servants Josh Bolten, Tony Snow and Rob Portman has not changed the image of incompetence.
A few Republicans blame incessant attack from the new Democratic majority in Congress for that image. Many more say today's problems by the administration derive from yesterday's mistakes, whose impact persists. The answer that is not entertained by the president's most severe GOP critics, even when not speaking for quotation, is that this is just the governing style of George W. Bush and never will change while he is in the Oval Office.
Regarding the Libby-Gonzales equation, unofficial word from the White House is not reassuring. One credible source says the president never -- not even on the way out of the Oval Office in January 2009 -- will pardon Libby. Another equally good source says the president never will ask Gonzales to resign. That exactly reverses the prevailing Republican opinion in Congress. Bush is alone.