When the White House floated the name of former Solicitor General Ted Olson as the president’s preferred replacement for scandal-plagued Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, it was a poke in the eye to responsible members the Senate Judiciary Committee who were pressing for a nominee capable of rebuilding the Justice Department Gonzales had effectively destroyed.
Olson might have been an abler lawyer than the outgoing Attorney General. But the man who led the scheming to get the Supreme Court to prevent an honest recount of Florida presidential votes in 2000 is, if anything, more fiercely partisan and ideologically driven than Gonzales.
With the Justice Department in crisis as a result of instability caused by the politically-motivated firings of key U.S. attorneys, resignations of top-level managers, an exodus of career lawyers and revelations about crude political meddling with the mission of the civil rights division, the idea of putting a committed ideologue like Olson in charge was not merely offensive but frightening to Democratic and Republican senators who take seriously their oversight role.
Members of the Judiciary Committee made it clear, publicly and privately, that Olson would face a fight. Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, began to define the terms of what would have been the first serious confirmation battle of the Bush presidency — with the word "serious" being defined not by the passions involved but the prospect that the White House might not prevail.
Leahy and other key Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, particularly New York’s Chuck Schumer, believed they could defeat Olson’s nomination at the committee level with a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who are genuinely worried about the crisis at Judiciary, such as Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter. Even if the nomination got out of committee on a tie vote, Schumer believed that Republicans who are worried about getting reelected in 2008, such as Maine’s Susan Collins and Minnesota’s Norm Coleman, would join Democrats in rejecting Olson.
After surveying the chamber, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced last week that Olsen would not be confirmed.
The Republican National Committee issued statements grumbling about how: "Dems Try To Choose Bush’s Attorney General." Right-wing talk radio geared up for a fight.
But the White House was looking at the same Senate as Reid. And late last week, it appears, the president and his aides blinked.