WASHINGTON -- A report as routine as what was put out by the Identity Theft Task Force Monday normally is released without a White House statement, but this time the announcement came from George W. Bush himself. He praised Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales "for taking on this difficult and important assignment" in co-chairing the task force. That constituted bad news for Republicans outside the White House, signaling that the president really does intend to keep Gonzales in office.
Bush going out of his way to praise his beleaguered friend from Texas only confirmed signals sent this week. The president's improbable praise for Gonzales's pathetic performance as a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week was no mere gesture. The authoritative word from the White House was that Bush was adamant about retaining Gonzales as attorney general despite Republican demands that the president cut his losses with a new face at Justice.
Vice President Dick Cheney's personal criticism Tuesday of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a rare statement just off the Senate floor suggested that defense of Gonzales is not an isolated act of defiance. Bush, never entranced by life in Washington, detests dealing with a Democratic Congress. Reflecting annoyance and fatigue, he is unwilling to withstand incessant attacks from the likes of Reid and is ready to fight it out for the more than a year and a half remaining in his term. Retaining Gonzales means Bush has slipped behind the barricades.
All the Republicans in Congress who I have contacted view this posture by Bush to be pure folly. For the long term, they predict their president's intent to wage constant warfare against the majority Democrats will cast a pall on Republican chances of retaining the presidency in 2008. For the shorter term, they foresee nothing but trouble from Gonzales continuing in power. "I cannot imagine," said a House GOP leader, who would not be quoted by name, "how [Bush] thinks Gonzales can function effectively with no Republican support."
Gonzales's difficulties did not begin with the botched dismissal of U.S. attorneys or his serial memory failure. Much as Bill Clinton sought to replicate in Washington the culture of Little Rock by bringing along Vince Foster and Webster Hubbell, Bush imported such close associates from Austin as Gonzales and Harriet Miers.