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After AG Piñata

Opinion Journal, Review & Outlook, August 28, 2007, Hat tip: Maureen

Two priorities: Presidential power and the war on terror.

Democrats finally got their man yesterday, as Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation so he'd no longer be a political "distraction" as Attorney General. President Bush accepted with regret and rued that his longtime friend had been "dragged through the mud for political reasons." The decision was probably inevitable, but it should also teach the White House a lesson in the kind of qualities Mr. Bush will need in a successor.

Mr. Gonzales made more than a few political mistakes, and his management at Justice will not be taught in case studies. Yet the great irony of his tenure is that he is hardly the hyper-partisan political actor that Democrats portrayed him to be. He's more a conciliator than fighter. His greatest mistake is that he underestimated the political assaults that would come his way once Democrats took Congress.

Thus did the entirely legitimate dismissal of nine U.S. Attorneys blossom into a "scandal" without a crime. Those Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President, and the Administration should have defended the firings as a proper exercise of Presidential political authority from the moment they were questioned. Instead, Mr. Gonzales allowed assorted Justice officials to claim such other reasons as competence for the dismissals, giving Democrats the opening they needed to charge a "coverup" and question his "credibility." The claims that Mr. Gonzales lied to Congress were always trumped up, but his ability to argue for Mr. Bush's other priorities was undermined.

On the merits, the worst abuse uncovered in this affair so far was committed by a Member of Congress: Senator Pete Domenici's phone call to a U.S. Attorney about the status of a corruption probe against political opponents in New Mexico. But that was quickly dropped as a story line because the real Democratic goal is to keep the Bush White House under constant political fire through November 2008.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave that game away yesterday, when he greeted Mr. Gonzales's resignation with a press release noting that this "is not the end of the story. Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House."

In other words, Democrats will now insist that the price of confirmation for the next Attorney General be that he agrees to appoint a "special counsel" to investigate the firing fiasco. This would mean the next 17 months would be filled with more grand jury proceedings, FBI leaks, and other events designed to investigate what is essentially a political dispute. If Mr. Bush lets that happen, he might as well stay in Crawford.

With so little time left in his term, Mr. Bush needs above all an AG willing to explain and defend his policies on the vital and related areas of Presidential power and the war on terror. Mr. Gonzales was mostly a stalwart on the latter, going back to his years as White House Counsel. More recently, he has argued inside the Administration for the usefulness of Guantanamo against those at State and Defense who want to close it for reasons of public diplomacy. Mr. Gonzales understands that these detainees have to be kept somewhere, and that the criminal justice system is not up to the job of trying them. His successor should be someone willing to engage critics on the Gitmo battle, as well as on fights over military tribunals and wiretaps of foreign terrorists. He should also be someone who understands that even a weakened President needs to act as if he's strong. That is, even a "lame duck" President still retains his powers under the Constitution and will be more effective if he's willing to use them.

The press is floating the name of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who was confirmed unanimously by the Senate as recently as 2005. That'd be fine with us, though we wonder why Mr. Bush would want to fight two confirmation battles or revisit Hurricane Katrina.

A better choice would be Laurence Silberman, a Deputy Attorney General during the 1970s when the executive branch was similarly under siege from Capitol Hill. Now on senior status with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Silberman also knows the terror issue, having served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's Review Panel and as co-chair of the Robb-Silberman commission that looked at Iraq intelligence. Judges Michael Mukasey or Jose Cabranes might also fit the bill.

Democrats may be in such a mood that they won't confirm anybody, but then the political nature of their attacks will be exposed for what they are.

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