When President Bush nominated Michael Mukasey to be attorney general, presidential candidates offered reactions that broke down mostly on party lines -- Republicans positive, Democrats guarded. Rudy Giuliani, whose campaign counts Mukasey as an adviser, gushed that "he will meet and exceed all expectations." John Edwards was a harder sell. "We need to hear more about how Judge Mukasey will repair the serious damage caused by his predecessors," he said.
But what the candidates have to say about the person Bush chose doesn't really matter much. They aren't likely to determine his fate, and even if he's confirmed, Mukasey won't be around long. What would be much more valuable is to know, if they are ever in a position to nominate someone for attorney general, who it would be. You think you could do better? Fine -- take your best shot, right now.
That information might help voters make up their minds. After all, nobody guessed in advance that Bush, upon being elected in 2000, would turn the Justice Department over to a Missouri senator who needed a job, having just lost an election to an opponent who happened to be dead. John Ashcroft was on nobody's list of legal heavyweights. Nor did we know that shortly after being re-elected, the president would give the job to Alberto Gonzales, another nominee whose virtues were far more visible to Bush than to anyone else.
It's good to know what the candidates think about Mukasey and his predecessor at the Justice Department, mainly because those opinions give us an idea what sort of attorney general they envision. Better still, though, for them to give us an idea what sort of attorney general they envision by providing some names.
That shouldn't be too hard for them to do, since most of them are well-connected members of the bar. Rudy Giuliani was associate attorney general under President Reagan, so he knows what the job entails. Fred Thompson was a federal prosecutor and counsel to some important congressional committees.
Barack Obama is a member of the faculty at the University of Chicago law school, where he could find a possible candidate or two. John Edwards was one of the most successful plaintiff's lawyers in America until he went into politics. Joe Biden has been chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which handles the confirmation hearings for each attorney general nominee. Hillary Clinton practiced law back in Arkansas and, during her White House years, got to know several prosecutors, notably Kenneth Starr.