White House now exercising power without influence

March 21, 2007|By MARTHA O'CONNELL

To understand how embattled President Bush has become, consider the difference between power and influence.

All presidents exercise inherent, formal powers. But not all are influential, because influence requires presidents to convince other politicians and the public. When presidents exercise power without influence, they lose their authority; they are reduced to the exertions of their office.

This is the situation confronting President Bush. With an approval rating hovering a few points above Richard Nixon's at his resignation, facing Democratic majorities at every level of government and rising criticism from fellow Republicans, he no longer has much influence.

But here's the thing: Mr. Bush never cared much about influence. From the beginning, he aimed to expand power by assertion, not persuasion. And this is why he finds himself in trouble again, this time over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

The firings are only the latest power grab by Republicans. The GOP understands that real power has less to do with election results than legal maneuvering. In fact, conservative lawyers worked hard during the last decade to limit presidential power, before promptly reversing course after Mr. Bush won:

During President Bill Clinton's final six years, the Republican-led majority in Congress issued more than 1,000 subpoenas to the White House; during Mr. Bush's first term, the Republicans issued none. Of course, this is the same Republican majority that took 140 hours of sworn testimony about alleged misuse of the Clintons' Christmas card list but a mere 12 hours on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

During the 1990s, conservative lawyer Theodore B. Olson had a key role in the "Arkansas Project," which was tasked with digging up dirt on the Clintons. His reward for such unseemly behavior? Mr. Bush appointed him solicitor general, the country's highest-ranking lawyer, and Mr. Olson is rumored to be under consideration to replace Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales if Mr. Gonzales resigns.

At the president's request, a provision was added to the USA Patriot Act to allow the White House to replace U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation.

Against this backdrop, is it any surprise that Mr. Gonzales and Bush presidential adviser Karl Rove would taint the American justice system by attempting to replace U.S. attorneys they deemed to lack partisan loyalty? The provision they slipped into the Patriot Act, which Congress appears poised to eliminate (the Senate voted to do so yesterday), signaled their intent to tinker with these appointments.

They booted John McKay, a U.S. attorney from Washington state, who refused to investigate voter fraud in the 2004 gubernatorial race won by Democrat Christine Gregoire. They reportedly canned David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, the man who inspired Tom Cruise's character in A Few Good Men, because he did not complete investigations of Democrats in time for the 2006 November elections.

Other U.S. attorneys must be toeing the administration's partisan line. A study of elected officials investigated by Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys between 2001 and 2006 found that seven Democrats were investigated for every Republican, a ratio that, according to the study's authors, "exceeds even the racial profiling of African-Americans in traffic stops."

Either Democrats are sevenfold more corrupt than Republicans or there's something fishy in Mr. Bush's Department of Justice.

Mr. Bush says appointees serve at "the pleasure of the president," implying that the firings were standard procedure. But another study, this one by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, found only five of the 486 U.S. attorneys appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate between 1981 and 2006 who failed to finish their four-year terms.

In other words, except for changes with new administrations, Mr. Bush dumped more U.S. attorneys in one day than the two-decade total for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton - combined.

Republican Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire wants one more firing. "The president should fire the attorney general and replace him as soon as possible with someone who can provide strong, aggressive leadership prosecuting the war on terrorism, running the Department of Justice, and working with the president and Congress on important homeland security matters," said Mr. Sununu.

That Mr. Bush has been reduced to asserting his "pleasure of the president" powers is indicative of his waning influence. That's why the president's men, realizing the limited appeal of Mr. Bush's agenda, dedicated themselves long ago to expanding his executive powers.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com.

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