Monday, September 17, 2007

Bush reaches out; folksy Fred gets lucky

News on several fronts:

Three weeks ago, in the wake of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' widely applauded resignation, I wrote this: "Bush may be politically constrained from nominating another White House errand boy. This time he faces a Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, and there's no way that Patrick Leahy and his crew are going to sign off on anybody who believes that Justice should function merely as a political arm of the Republican National Committee....Bush soon will be battling Congress over executive privilege and domestic surveillance. Gonzales, with his credibility in tatters, would have been the wrong salesman. There are plenty of respected, independent legal scholars who can make a case for strong executive authority...strictly on the merits. Now that Bush's circle of inept Texas cronies has shrunk to nothing, he may have no choice except to reach out."

And apparently he has done so. Bush has tapped Michael Mukasey, a retired federal judge and ex-federal prosecutor. The decision to go with Mukasey is a sign that Bush actually recognizes his current political weakness, and understands that if he goes to the mat for a controversial conservative nominee, he will surely lose. Clearly, somebody in the bunker is thinking clearly, at least on this matter.

Mukasey, by reputation, is a tough law-and-order judge who can indeed advocate for Bush's concerns strictly on the merits. He does not hail from the Bush inner circle; indeed, as an outsider from New York, he is hardly known within the Washington community of conservative activists. (He's an advisor in the Rudy Giuliani presidential campaign.) But this weekend the White House enlisted Bill Kristol to smooth ruffled feathers and make the conservative case for Mukasey.

The activists' favorite candidate for the AG job was Ted Olson, the current U.S. solicitor general, but Olson (fairly or not) would trigger the protracted battle with the Democratic Congress that Bush can ill afford. Olson reputedly has a fine legal mind, and some Democrats (notably, ex-Bill Clinton operative Lanny Davis) sing his praises. But he was a prominent player in some of the major partisan scraps of the past decade - joining the Bush legal team during the 2000 Florida recount battle, and representing the conservative American Spectator magazine during the '90s, when it was investigating Clinton's private life. The current Democratic Congress, which can't seem to do much of anything about Iraq, would have sought to satisfy its liberal base by devouring Olson.

Mukasey, at least, has won early praise from liberals such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer, and Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice; even liberal attorney/blogger Glenn Greenwald likes Mukasey's rulings in the famous Jose Padilla terrorist case. For all these reasons, some conservatives are already suspicious of Mukasey, but perhaps that's a sign that we actually have the making of a bipartisan nominee. Considering the poisonous mood in Washington in the waning days of the Bush era, that alone would be an accomplishment.


Speaking of terrorism, Fred Thompson, the GOP's annointed great conservative hope, got very lucky early last week. Another embarrassing story about his Washington lobbying career got largely buried, thanks to the heavy media focus on the General Petraeus hearings. Consider this one:

Thompson billed his lobbying firm for the work he performed in 1992 on behalf of two Libyan intelligence agents who had been criminally charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103.

You may remember that terrorist act. The plane blew up over Scotland a few days before Christmas in 1988, sending 270 innocents (most of them Americans) into the sky. Four years later, after two Libyans were indicted, a Libyan lawyer was trying to prevent his clients from being extradited to the West. Seeking legal advice, he finally turned to the Washington lobbying firm where Thompson was hanging his hat. Thompson helped out. As he explained earlier this month, "I believe it was a venue question...I gave them my opinion, and that was the long and the short of it. That's all I know about it."

He wasn't the main player in this episode, but he did bill the firm for 3.3 hours of work on the case. That doesn't sound like much time, but you can still dispense an awful lot of advice to terrorists, or contribute considerable research, in just 3.3 hours. As a lawyer for the Pan Am 103 victims' families put it, "a number (of the families) were offended and angered that American lawyers were willing to earn fees by doing anything to help this pariah nation or the two bombing suspects.”

Thompson got lucky last week that this story quickly died. He's also lucky that he is not a Democrat. Because if a Democratic candidate for president had ever billed 3.3 hours of lobbying work on behalf of terrorist suspects (one of whom was ultimately convicted in the bombing), you can easily imagine the GOP's attack ad:

"The Democrats want us to believe that they can keep this country safe. But when one of their own candidates, working as a Washington lobbyist insider, had the chance to take money from terrorists who killed hundreds of Americans, he took it, and he aided their cause. The families of the victims aboard Pan Am 103 deserved better, and America today deserves a strong president who will fight the terrorists, not embolden them..."

But even if Thompson managed to dodge this story, he can't escape his tepid performance on the stump. This guy might turn out to be the worst product rollout since the DeLorean car in 1981. Asked late last week, in Florida, to comment on the Terri Schiavo case - which galvanized the nation two years ago, and became a conservative cause celebre - Thompson replied thusly:

"I can't pass judgment on it. I know that good people were doing what they thought was best. That's going back in history. I don't remember the details of it."

Consider those last two sentences. We're talking about the national political battle over a brain-damaged woman in 2005, not the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Schiavo's fate, and the GOP Congress' decision to override state's rights and reinsert her feeding tube, was a top news staple for weeks. Either Thompson was so immersed in memorizing his TV scripts in 2005 that he was barely paying attention to real life, or he was feigning bad memory in order to avoid taking a stand on an issue that was crucial to the conservative base. (It appears to be the latter.)

Lobbying for terrorists, claiming amnesia on Schiavo...this is the touted heir to Ronald Reagan?