Patronage, Politicization and Policy

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The White House acknowledged on Sunday that presidential adviser Karl Rove served as a conduit for complaints to the Justice Department about federal prosecutors who were later fired for what critics charge were partisan political reasons.

Ron Hutcheson, Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev, White House says Rove relayed complaints about prosecutors, McClatchy Newspapers, March 11, 2007

The House Judiciary Committee is looking this week into the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors for varying allegedly political motivations. Some failed, evidently, to prosecute Democrats aggressively enough; some failed to soft-pedal investigations of Republicans. Some were let go early so a new cohort of Republicans could add “US attorney” to their resumes before the end of the Bush presidency.

That a White House might have exerted political influence on a federal agency doesn’t seem like earth-shattering news. Federal agencies are headed by executive appointees, and it makes sense that each new administration brings in its own. Janet Reno fired 93 US attorneys in 1992. Patronage is, after all, among the oldest professions, and America votes to see policies enacted.

But the Bush Department of Justice fired its own appointees — Republicans — allegedly because they failed to prosecute Democrats aggressively enough. Which makes the DOJ look like a political arm of the Republican Party, and not a federal agency. This is not the first time this has happened. What we’ve learned about Justice this week can be seen consistently over Bush’s two terms: federal agencies are valuable less as a reserve of professional expertise, and more as a means to advance the White House’s chosen policies.

Think of the White House’s impatience with the CIA or the State Department, or the struggle between the Pentagon military and civilian leadership. In 2002, the president dismissed his own EPA’s findings on global warming as a “report put out by the bureaucrats.” “Experts,” then — analysts, diplomats, scientists and now prosecutors — have become bureaucrats. Experts can exercise judgment and have to be listened to; bureaucrats are replaceable and capable only of hampering sound policy.

We’d like to look at the US attorney firings as part of a larger pattern, a nineteenth-century way of looking at the federal government as a political machine. Are the US attorney dismissals an isolated event? Has this White House politicized federal agencies any more than any other in recent memory? Prior to the dismissals, Kyle Sampson in the DOJ mailed to Harriet Miers in the White House a list of attorneys that either “exhibited loyalty to the President” or “chafed against Administration initiatives.” Is the role of an employee of the executive branch simply to “serve at the pleasure of the President,” or to show judgment?

Paul Kiel

Blogger, TPM Muckraker

Wayne Slater

Senior political reporter, Dallas Morning News

Author, The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power and Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential

Ron Suskind


Former national affairs writer, The Wall Street Journal

Author, The One Percent Doctrine and The Price of Loyalty

John Nichols

Blogger, The Online Beat

Washington correspondent, The Nation

Associate editor, The Capital Times (Madison, WI)

Author, The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism

Author, Dick: The Man Who Is President

Co-author, It’s the Media, Stupid

Extra Credit Reading

Paul Kiel, Today’s Must-Read, TPM Muckraker, March 13, 2007: “In other words, Sampson, Gonzales’ chief of staff, unbeknownst to other Justice Department officials, kept all this to himself. A rogue operator within the Justice Department, right under Gonzales’ chin!”

Josh Marshall, March 9, 2007, Talking Points Memo, March 9, 2007: “The two cases we know about are ones in which the US Attorney refused to play along and paid the price. So what about the ones who did play along?”

John Nichols, Gonzalez’s Big Mistake, The Notion, March 13, 2007: “If, in fact, Gonzales or Rove acted with the approval of President Bush or Vice President Cheney, then the issue at hand becomes a constitutional matter of the highest order — or, to be more precise, of the high crimes and misdemeanors order.”

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane, Gonzales: ‘Mistakes Were Made’, The Washington Post, March 14, 2007: “”I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility,” Gonzales said. He said he did not know the details of the plan to fire the prosecutors, but he defended the dismissals: “I stand by the decision, and I think it was a right decision.”

Paul Krugman, Department of Injustice, The New York Times (behind the Times Select firewall), March 9, 2007: “In fact, it’s becoming clear that the politicization of the Justice Department was a key component of the Bush administration’s attempt to create a permanent Republican lock on power.”

Christy Hardin Smith, The Rule of Karl Must End, Firedoglake, March 14, 2007: ” What needs to be made crystal clear to everyone is that the Rule of Karl is at an end, at long last . . . And that, henceforth, this sort of hack behavior will not be tolerated ever again. The only reason this has come to a head as it has at this point is because the Republican-controlled Congress was voted out in November — because of their long-term rubber stamping pact with Rove, no meaningful oversight on this issue has been done for six long years.”


Every president does nominate their own United States attorneys, the logic being that they should have people enforcing administration priorities. So when Clinton came into office, he replaced all 93 United States attorneys, when Bush came into office, [President George W. Bush’s] father, he replaced the United States attorneys. It’s just a matter of course. What’s abnormal is to it in the middle of an administration. That has never been done before, particularly en masse like this, and for no reason.

Paul Kiel


What Karl [Rove] understood on the day after the election was that the Bush administration had lost the ability to contain the kind of subpoena power and investigations that Congress would undoubtedly begin to do in the final two [years]. He couldn’t really control that. But some of the areas which he could control, and the White House could deal with, would be in making sure that law enforcement, the US attorneys around the country a) were less inclined to pursue the kind of scandals that might embarass the party before 2008, and b) would be the kind of people who, unlike the New Mexico US attorney, might be a little more receptive to going after democrats.

Wayne Slater


That’s the concept. You act in these ways. You do what you can. You show, essentially, a strong perception of power, whether you house it or not, by making examples of certain individuals. And others will know: boy, I’m not going to do certain things that I might have otherwise done.

Ron Suskind


John Dilulio, who talked to me for one of the Esquire pieces — he’s the guy who ran the faith-based program, he was the first guy to leave the white building and speak real truth — and what he says early on — this is 2002 — he say’s there’s no precedent in any modern administration for this. There’s no policy apparatus. They don’t produce white papers; it’s kids on big wheels. He says, I’m in meetings where they get Medicare and Medicaid mixed up. And in this vacuum, rushes in the political arm.

Ron Suskind


We have had times in our past when a lot of positions in the government were filled by political hacks and for political reasons. What’s different in this administration, and what I think is significant, is so many positions are filled by ideaologues. And that’s where you get really dangerous. A political hack often knows enough not to make a stupid mistake. But an ideaologue believes that he can just go ahead and do what he thinks best, and that ultimately everything is going to turn out right.

John Nichols


Ideaology is about a kind of absolutism. We’re done asking questions, we’ve made our decisions, and now it’s a matter of the hows, not the whys. It’s a matter of execution, if you will.

Ron Suskind

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