There is not much chance that the full Senate will block the nomination of White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to serve as Attorney General. But, as the vote approaches, critics of Gonzales have the potential to garner a stronger vote against his confirmation than they did in one or both of the last two fights over controversial conservative nominees to guide the Department of Justice: Edwin Meese in 1985 and John Ashcroft in 2001.
Thirty-one senators — all of them Democrats — opposed Meese’s confirmation, while forty-two senators — again, all Democrats — opposed Ashcroft.
It would be meaningful if foes of the Gonzales nomination in particular, and of the Bush Administration’s callous approach to civil liberties and international law in general, could muster as many vote against the current nominee as they did against Meese. And, considering the fact that there are fewer Democrats in the Senate now than in 2001, it would be exceptionally significant if they could equal the anti-Ashcroft vote.
Neither prospect is beyond the realm of possibility.
Unlike Meese, who gained a reasonable level of support from a still-substantial caucus of conservative Democrats, and Ashcroft, a former senator who garnered the votes even of some liberal Democrats with whom he had served, Gonzales has very little claim on Democratic support. Additionally, he could lose the votes of one or more Republicans.
Here are the particulars:
* When the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended approval of the Gonzales nomination, it did so along precise partisan lines. Ten Republicans voted for Gonzales, while eight Democrats voted against him. The Democratic unity is significant, as it was lacking in 2001. That year, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, one of the most liberal members of the chamber, broke with his fellow Judiciary Committee Democrats. Along with Connecticut’s Chris Dodd and a handful of other Democrats, Feingold has argued that Presidents have a right to select the Cabinet that they want. But Feingold always promised that he would make an exception if a nominee’s record or actions raised serious concerns about ethics or competence. After grilling Gonzales at length during a Judiciary Committee hearing in early January, Feingold said he was not confident that Gonzales would respect the rule of law. Accordingly, he voted against confirming the nominee. The Feingold break is significant, as he has credibility with Democrats who usually refuse to oppose Cabinet nominations. Additionally, Feingold has a measure of across-the-aisle credibility with moderate Republicans who see the Wisconsinite as one of the few senators who tends to rise above partisanship.
* There is a widespread sense in the Senate that objections to Gonzales are more serious than those raised with regard to Ashcroft. Ashcroft, a member of the Senate until just days before the vote on his nomination for Attorney General, had raised the hackles of grassroots activists who were concerned that he was a rigid ideologue — unyielding in his opposition to abortion rights, unsympathetic to civil liberties, and frequently insensitive to civil rights. While those concerns were legitimate and clearly consequential for millions of activists and a good many senators, the objections to Gonzales are more specific and shocking. Not only did Gonzales solicit and approve legal memoranda that gave permission to US troops and the Central Intelligence Agency to torture Iraqi prisoners and al-Qaida suspects, he also ridiculed the 1947 Geneva Convention as “quaint” and argued that it did not apply to Taliban and al-Qaida operatives captured in Afghanistan. Even worse, as Delaware Democrat Joe Biden noted, Gonzales “utterly failed” to “own up” to his role in developing a legal memorandum that said a U.S. soldier or civilian official who was accused of violating U.S. statutes that make it illegal to torture a suspect could invoke national defense concerns in order to avoid prosecution. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, provided appropriate perspective when he explained, “The attorney general’s duty is to uphold the rule of law, not to circumvent it. The Administration has a large and growing accountability deficit, and as this confirmation process draws to a close, I must protest that the stonewalling continues.”