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.
The good-natured senator from Delaware was no lonely dissenter. At his side were such senior Democrats as Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Patrick Leahy of Vermont (joined by up-and-coming first-termers like Schumer). Sen. Harry Reid, the new minority leader who advocates a less partisan Senate, was a no-voter in every case except support for fellow Westerner Norton at Interior.
Democratic memoranda earlier revealed a coordinated campaign to derail Bush judges, and Senate sources say the party's stance on new Cabinet nominees also is orchestrated. Party leaders decided to use the debate on Rice to rehash Bush's Iraq policy without really opposing her confirmation, but to actually oppose Gonzales while trying to tie him to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
Of the six Democrats who broke party ranks to vote for Gonzales, five were from "red" states carried by Bush for president. The sixth was from "blue" Connecticut: Joseph Lieberman, 2000 nominee for vice president and 2004 candidate for the presidential nomination. Freed of national political ambitions, he can be Joe Lieberman again. In the most closely reasoned speech supporting Gonzales, he demolished the case against him.
Lieberman pointed out that the case was based on a Justice Department memo to Gonzales about illegal combatants. "I have to ask myself," Lieberman told the Senate, whether to deny confirmation "because of a memo written by somebody else." As for Gonzales's refusal to tell senators his comments to the president on the memo, Lieberman said, "I respect the right of the counsel of the president to keep private . . . the private counsel he gives to the president."
When I first covered the Senate 45 years ago, confirmation battles were rare. It was considered a stain on the Senate in 1959 when President Eisenhower's nominee for secretary of commerce was rejected because of one powerful Democratic senator's personal animus. Today, nothing is personal. President Bush's 2001 nominees were attacked because of their opinions and his 2005 nominees because of administration policies. The decline of the Senate continues.