By Robert D. Novak
WASHINGTON - Two weeks earlier on Capitol Hill, there was a
groundswell of Republican demands -- public and private --
that President Bush pardon the convicted Scooter Libby.
Last week, as Alberto Gonzales came under withering
Democratic fire, there were no public GOP declarations of
support amid private predictions of the attorney general's
Republican leaders in Congress (asking not to be quoted by
name) early last week predicted Gonzales would fall because
the Justice Department botched firing eight U.S. attorneys.
By week's end, they stipulated that the president would not
sack his longtime aide and that Gonzales would leave only
on his own initiative. But there was still an ominous lack
of congressional support for the attorney general.
"Gonzales never has developed a base of support for himself
up here," a House Republican leader told me. But this is
less a Gonzales problem than a Bush problem. With nearly
two years remaining in his presidency, George W. Bush is
alone. In half a century, I have not seen a president so
isolated from his own party in Congress -- not Jimmy
Carter, not even Richard Nixon as he faced impeachment.
Republicans in Congress do not trust their president to
protect them. That alone is sufficient reason to withhold
statements of support for Gonzales, when such a gesture
could be quickly followed by his resignation under
pressure. Rep. Adam Putnam, the highly regarded young
chairman of the House Republican Conference, praised
Donald Rumsfeld last November, only to find him sacked
But not many Republican lawmakers would speak up for
Gonzales even if they were sure Bush would stick with him.
He is the least popular Cabinet member on Capitol Hill,
even more disliked than Rumsfeld had been. The word most
often used by Republicans in describing the management of
the Justice Department under Gonzales is "incompetent."
Attorneys general in recent years have ranged from skilled
political operatives close to the president (most notably
Bobby Kennedy under John F. Kennedy) to non-political
lawyers detached from the president (such as Ed Levi under
Gerald Ford). Gonzales is surely close to Bush, but nobody
has accused him of being skilled at politics. He puzzled
and alarmed conservatives with a January public speech in
which he claimed that he would take over from the White
House the selection of future federal nominees.
The saving grace that some Republicans find in the dispute
over U.S. attorneys is that, at least temporarily, it blurs
debate over an unpopular war. But the overriding feeling in
the Republican cloakroom is that the Justice Department and
the White House could not have been more inept in dealing
with the president's unquestioned right to appoint -- and
replace -- federal prosecutors.
The I-word (for incompetence) is used by Republicans in
describing the Bush administration generally. Several of
them I talked to described a trifecta of incompetence:
the Walter Reed hospital scandal, the FBI's misuse of the
Patriot Act and the U.S. attorneys firing fiasco. "We
always have claimed that we were the party of better
management," one House leader told me. "How can we claim
The reconstruction of his government after Bush's re-
election in 2004, though a year late, clearly improved
the president's team. Yet the addition of extraordinary
public servants Josh Bolten, Tony Snow and Rob Portman
has not changed the image of incompetence.
A few Republicans blame incessant attack from the new
Democratic majority in Congress for that image. Many more
say today's problems by the administration derive from
yesterday's mistakes, whose impact persists. The answer
that is not entertained by the president's most severe GOP
critics, even when not speaking for quotation, is that
this is just the governing style of George W. Bush and
never will change while he is in the Oval Office.
Regarding the Libby-Gonzales equation, unofficial word from
the White House is not reassuring. One credible source says
the president never -- not even on the way out of the Oval
Office in January 2009 -- will pardon Libby. Another
equally good source says the president never will ask
Gonzales to resign. That exactly reverses the prevailing
Republican opinion in Congress. Bush is alone.