Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may be slightly more secure in his position these days than in the recent past, when it was looking like “Gonzales” was Spanish for “canned.” But he’s not out of the woods yet — which is why speculation about possible successors continues.
Ben Wittes, writing for TNR Online, has some excellent insights. His overall take:
[B]etween a sinking administration that still demands loyalty above all else and congressional Democrats keen on using their new oversight powers, finding a candidate who satisfies both sides will be hard. The next attorney general must be someone acceptable enough to Democrats not just to get confirmed but to tamp down the fire Gonzales has witlessly set.
But he must also be enough of a conservative to satisfy the White House. And he needs a reputation for probity and moral seriousness sufficient to speak to the public and to Congress with the respect that Gonzales obviously lacks. It’s a tall order–a pinch so tight that it squeezes out almost all of the names being bandied about in public.
Wittes then marches through various possible nominees. Discussion continues, after the jump.
1. James Comey. Some ATL commenters previously floated the name of the former Deputy Attorney General. But Wittes is not optimistic about Comey’s chances, given his ideological independence from the White House:
[H]e has virtually no chance of getting the nod. Bush reportedly once dubbed him “Cuomo”; the vice president’s office would go to the mat to stop him. I’ll eat this column if Comey becomes the next attorney general.
2. Ted Olson; Laurence Silberman. The former Solicitor General and the sitting D.C. Circuit judge have been talked about as possible AG nominees. But these staunch conservatives suffer from the opposite problem as Comey:
Both are conservative legal heavyweights. And both, I believe, would be strong attorneys general who would stand up to the White House when necessary. But convincing Democrats of that will be nearly impossible. Olson’s confirmation as solicitor general back in 2001 was ugly, largely because of his own partisan activities during the Clinton administration…. Similarly, many Democrats view the outspoken Silberman with deep suspicion because of his reputation as an energetic conservative force on his court.
3. Larry Thompson. Wittes considers him to be the most serious possibilty (and we agree):
Thompson, now general counsel of Pepsico, managed to emerge from Ashcroft’s department with a reputation for good management and professionalism. The Bushies don’t hate him, and his name doesn’t rile Democrats either. He served as a U.S. attorney earlier in his career as well.
Yet even Thompson would not be a worry-free pick. During his prior service in the Justice Department, he approved the deportation of a Syrian-Canadian named Maher Arar to Syria — where Arar claims he was tortured. The administration has tenaciously resisted accounting for this decision, and a Thompson nomination would provide a forum for uncomfortable pressure to do so.
Despite his role in controversial “war on terror” policies, we still like Thompson’s chances. At a recent dinner party we attended, a well-connected D.C. lawyer swore up and down that Thompson would get the nod.
4. Paul Clement. Just like an Oscar race, the Attorney General sweepstakes needs a dark horse:
One out-of-the-box possibility is the current solicitor general, Paul Clement. Clement is quite young and, other than running the solicitor general’s office, has no particular management experience. Beyond this problem, however, he fits the bill to a tee. Since becoming Olson’s deputy at the outset of the administration, he has emerged as one of the very finest appellate lawyers in the country. He has been a loyal soldier for the administration, arguing most of the important war on terrorism cases on its behalf, but he has reportedly also pushed internally, at times, for a more moderate posture on key questions like the process afforded to enemy combatants.
5. Sen. Orrin Hatch. Senator Hatch isn’t discussed as a possibility by Wittes, but he was recently mentioned by the WSJ’s Washington Wire:
Sen. Orrin Hatch took to the airwaves Sunday to defend Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, praising him as “a very bright guy,” a “very honest man” who’s “done a very good job.” But even though Gonzales’s future hangs in jeopardy over the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys, the Utah Republican seemed shocked when NBC”s “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert suggested President Bush might ask Hatch to take over as attorney general.
After insisting on the unlikely odds of such an event, Hatch said “it’s up to the president,” but if duty called, “I would serve this country any way I could.”
This strikes us as crazy talk; but stranger things have happened. So we’re not promising to eat anything if Senator Hatch is picked.
Upshot: Larry Thompson is the “Fred Fielding” of the bunch — the most logical and safe choice, and as such the frontrunner. If the Bush Administration were stronger, perhaps it would go with a more surprising or exciting pick. But considering the White House’s depleted political capital, this is probably Thompson’s job to lose.
Of course, this all depends upon Alberto Gonzales leaving. And given the tendency of President Bush to dig his heels in when criticized, and Gonzales’s apparent attachment to his job, such a departure isn’t a foregone conclusion. Stay tuned.
Head Hunt: Who Should Replace Alberto Gonzales? [TNR (registration required)]
Hatching a Plot? [Washington Wire]