NPR logo Alberto Gonzales and the Politics of 2008

Alberto Gonzales and the Politics of 2008

Republicans didn't attempt a no-confidence vote against AG Ramsey Clark in 1968. But they did produce some nasty buttons. hide caption

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Minnesota's Norm Coleman is one of five Republicans up for re-election next year who voted to bring the anti-Gonzales motion to the Senate floor. hide caption

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The Oklahoma senator's death in 1963 triggered an unusual succession battle. hide caption

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Thirty years ago today, the Wyoming Republican says he won't seek a third term. hide caption

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Yes it was pure politics – the Democrats' attempt on Monday to hold a Senate vote of no-confidence on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. If President Bush was not going to fire him, or if Gonzales was not going to leave on his own, then the non-binding motion originated by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was not going to do the trick, either. (But of course, that was never really the intention.)

Regardless, Republicans, as expected, blocked the vote, keeping the Senate seven votes shy of the magic 60 needed to proceed with the motion. The final vote was 53-38.

But that doesn't mean for a second that Senate Republicans don't wish that Gonzales would simply go away. Five have already called for his resignation. Seven – Norm Coleman (MN), Susan Collins (ME) and Olympia Snowe (ME), Chuck Hagel (NE), Gordon Smith (OR), John Sununu (NH) and Arlen Specter (PA) – voted with the Democrats to bring the "no confidence" motion to the floor. Many more lost confidence in Gonzales ages ago.

Noticeably absent from the brief debate was any GOP effort to defend the attorney general. Instead, Republican lawmakers focused on what they saw as political grandstanding by Schumer and his allies. Democrats, in turn, derided the politicization of the prosecutorial appointment process under Gonzales. Both sides are correct.

(Every Democrat who showed up voted for the motion. Seven senators did not vote, including presidential candidates Joe Biden (D-DE), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Chris Dodd (D-CT), John McCain (R-AZ) and Barack Obama (D-IL). Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Independent-Democrat, voted against it. Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska voted "present," as his son is thought to be under investigation by the Justice Department in a bribery investigation.)

Gonzales has had a rough tenure at the Justice Department, with his controversial position on the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, his views on domestic surveillance, and his more recent role in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. He has given convoluted and contradictory testimony as to why the eight were ousted. Democrats and not a few Republicans see him as in over his head, a Bush loyalist who is heading the DOJ simply because he is a Bush loyalist. But he shows no sign of leaving. And with Bush defiantly refusing to dump his AG, the odds makers say Gonzo will still be in office come 2008. And that's not exactly what Republicans want to see if they hope to minimize their losses next year.

For all the reasons Bush has given for keeping his embattled attorney general, one not openly spoken of is the odds of getting a Democratic Senate to confirm a successor. As shown by his Supreme Court picks, the president is not inclined to nominate a moderate just to ease the confirmation process. And Democrats might very well insist on a condition before voting for a new AG: an agreement with the White House that whoever succeeds Gonzales install a special prosecutor to investigate why those U.S. attorneys were really fired.

So while the debate goes on as to who was really hurt by the motion – whether it pointed out Gonzales' ineptitude or the Democrats' desire to play politics (or both) – we were most interested in the seven Republicans who voted to bring the "no confidence" measure to the floor. Five of them are up for re-election next year. Here's how their campaigns look at this point:

NORM COLEMAN (Minnesota): Coleman has been seen as vulnerable from the moment he edged past former Vice President Walter Mondale in their 2002 contest, held shortly after Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash. He has taken steps to increase his standing, opposing President Bush's plan to increase troop strength in Iraq and calling for Alberto Gonzales' resignation. The two leading Democrats who are fighting to take on Coleman are Al Franken, the comedian and liberal activist, and wealthy attorney Mike Ciresi, who had sought his party's Senate nomination in 2000 but lost to Mark Dayton. Coleman may be the most endangered Senate Republican for 2008.

SUSAN COLLINS (Maine): In her bid for a third term, Collins has a serious opponent in Democratic Rep. Tom Allen. Collins and fellow Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, in addition to voting for the no-confidence motion, are both lukewarm about the war. But Collins has resisted voting for any bill that includes a specific withdrawal date. Allen opposed the war from the start, voting against the House resolution authorizing Bush to take action against Saddam Hussein back in 2002, and antiwar groups are expected to rally behind him. (As an aside, Chellie Pingree, the former head of Common Cause who lost to Collins in 2002, is one of several Democrats hoping to succeed Allen in the House.)

CHUCK HAGEL (Nebraska): Unlike the others on this list, Hagel is not facing a serious threat to his re-election. But it's also not certain that Hagel will run again. His very public denunciation of Bush's war policies have led to speculation that Hagel could either retire or run for president as an independent. Already announced as a candidate for the seat is state Attorney General Jon Bruning, a Republican who says he's in the race regardless of what Hagel decides to do. Another potential candidate is ex-Rep. Hal Daub, who gave up his House seat for an unsuccessful Senate bid back in 1988. The Democrats' dream candidate is Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, but he may not run if Hagel seeks a third term.

GORDON SMITH (Oregon): Smith has long been listed as a serious Democratic target, and he may ultimately find himself in a tough battle for a third term. But for someone generally considered vulnerable, he has been spared challenges from nearly every major Democrat in the state. Smith has been savvy enough to break with the president on the Iraq war. He has also been raising a ton of money. Consequently, Democratic Reps. Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer and David Wu have all nixed running, along with former Gov. John Kitzhaber. Ultimately, the Democrats will come up with a candidate, but for now Smith has the advantage.

JOHN SUNUNU (New Hampshire): Democrats had an incredibly successful 2006 in New Hampshire, re-electing their governor by a record margin, knocking off both GOP congressmen and taking both houses of the state legislature. They want to continue the trend by ousting Sununu in '08. At least two Dems are in the hunt: Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand and Katrina Swett, who ran for a House seat five years ago. Many Democrats would love to see former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen take another shot; she narrowly lost to Sununu in the '02 contest.

For the record, here's a look back at the Feb. 3, 2005, vote in the Senate to confirm Gonzales as attorney general. The tally was 60-36. No Republican voted to oppose the nomination. Here's how the Democrats voted:

FOR (6): Landrieu (LA), Lieberman (CT), Nelson (NE), Nelson (FL), Pryor (AR), Salazar (CO).

AGAINST (36): Akaka (HI), Bayh (IN), Biden (DE), Bingaman (NM), Boxer (CA), Byrd (WV), Cantwell (WA), Carper (DE), Clinton (NY), Corzine (NJ), Dayton (MN), Dodd (CT), Dorgan (ND), Durbin (IL), Feingold (WI), Feinstein (CA), Harkin (IA), Jeffords (I-VT), Johnson (SD), Leahy (VT), Kennedy (MA), Kerry (MA), Kohl (WI), Lautenberg (NJ), Levin (MI), Lincoln (AR), Mikulski (MD), Murray (WA), Obama (IL), Reed (RI), Reid (NV), Rockefeller (WV), Sarbanes (MD), Schumer (NY), Stabenow (MI), Wyden (OR).

JUNKIE MAIL: Last week's column featured a list of House members over the past 30 years who resigned from Congress because of various ethics scrapes. The mention of Pennsylvania Democrat Dan Flood brought a smile to the face of Iowa State Univ. professor Steffen Schmidt: "I loved him best of all those on the list of slimeballs." With Flood's distinguished, Rollie Fingers-esque moustache, Steffen says it "reminded me of Snidley Whiplash!"

Janet Rogers of Arlington, Va., pointed to last week's column header – "The Equal-Opportunity Culture of Corruption" – and counted who was on the list. "Dems 12, Republicans 6. So far, it isn't very equal, is it?" Michele Merlino of Hoboken, N.J., had a similar thought but with a different conclusion: "I suspect you will be expanding that list pretty soon, given the investigations into [Republican congressmen] Rick Renzi, Jerry Lewis, and others."

And Jane Epstein of Lexington, Mass., caught a typo: Mel Reynolds, the Illinois Democrat who was convicted of sexual assault (among other charges), resigned on Oct. 1, 1995, not 1990.

Last week we also talked about how the late Sen. Craig Thomas (R-WY) will, because of state law, be succeeded by another Republican – even though the governor making the appointment is a Democrat. Bob Beck, the news director for Wyoming Public Radio, has this update: "The smart money is on Matt Mead, our current U.S. attorney, if he makes the list. The governor [Dave Freudenthal] loves him, and he is the grandson of Cliff Hansen, who was a senator here in the 1960s and '70s." And what luck: Hansen just happens to be the subject of our "This Day in Campaign History" feature (see end of column). More Bob Beck: "Colin Simpson (Al's son and a state legislator) is wrestling with this. Randall Luthi, who is with the Interior Department and a former state House speaker, is lobbying for it. State Sen. John Barrasso, who once ran against [Sen.] Mike Enzi and who is connected to Vice President Cheney, is also in the mix."

Randy Krehbiel, a staff writer for the Tulsa World, sends us this note about a memorable campaign moment:

"The death of Sen. Thomas brings to mind a favorite story about Oklahoma politics. Sen. Robert S. Kerr, a powerful Democrat known as the 'Uncrowned King of the U.S. Senate,' died on Jan. 1, 1963, two years into his third term. Under state law at that time, the governor could appoint an interim until a special election could be held.
"Gov. J. Howard Edmondson, also a Democrat, was due to leave office in a few days, replaced by Gov.-elect Henry Bellmon, a Republican (and future two-term senator). Edmondson resigned as governor early and Lt. Gov. George Nigh appointed him to the open Senate seat.
"The Kerr family was outraged. It wanted Bob Kerr Jr. appointed to his father's seat. In the special election, the Kerrs backed a brash state senator named Fred Harris, who beat Edmondson in the primary, and former University of Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson (R) in the general election. Harris won a full term in 1966, but his loud turn to the left didn't set well with the home folks, and by 1972, his career was effectively over (though he did make a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in '76)."

As for governors who voluntarily picked a Senate replacement from a party not their own, I came up with two examples: Oregon 1960, when Gov. Mark Hatfield (R) appointed a Democrat to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Richard Neuberger (D), and Michigan 1976, when retiring Sen. Philip Hart (D) died, and GOP Gov. William Milliken appointed Donald Riegle, the Democrat who had won the seat a month before, four days before he was to take office. Jerry Bixby of Troy, Mich., thought that Hart had resigned shortly before he died, but he did not.

But David Ray of Annandale, Va., remembered something that completely escaped us: "You're forgetting Gov. Tom Kean (R) of New Jersey, who appointed Frank Lautenberg (D) after the November 1982 election to complete the term of appointed Sen. Nicholas F. Brady (R), himself an appointee of Kean to replace the resigned Harrison Williams (D) earlier that year. My recollection is that Gov. Kean promised to appoint whoever won the November election to fill out the closing weeks of the unfinished term." David is right; Brady resigned on Dec. 27, 1982, and Kean appointed Lautenberg to fill the seat the same day. Seven days later, Lautenberg began his own term.

Last week also featured a great question on times when three senators – past, present and/or future – competed against each other in the same race. The questioner came up with one example (Minnesota 1996) and I came up with another (Idaho 1956). Ron Grimes of Fairfax, Va., found a third one: the 1950 Democratic primary in North Carolina, featuring former Sen. Robert "Buncombe Bob" Reynolds, appointed incumbent Frank Porter Graham, and eventual winner Willis Smith.

(One correction in that question. Richard Winger of San Francisco points out that the third candidate in that '96 Minnesota race, Dean Barkley, was not an "independent," as the questioner wrote, but the nominee of the Independence Party, which has been on the MN ballot since '94.)

Back to the future, Craig Thomas' death won't affect the balance of power in the Senate, but here is one situation that could. The news from South Dakota, however, is encouraging:

Q: What is the health status of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson? – Edie Cohen, Seattle, Wash.

A: Johnson, who suffered a brain hemorrhage last December, has reportedly made strides in his ability to walk and in his speech. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said Johnson is expected to return to work in September.

It is still too early to know what Johnson will do next year, when his seat is up. And that has kept the GOP off balance as well. Prior to Johnson's illness, there was widespread speculation that Gov. Mike Rounds (R) would challenge him. That may yet happen. If Johnson steps down, Rounds would be favored to win the seat. But this race may take quite a few more months to take shape.

WE'RE ON THE AIR: The "Political Junkie" segment can be heard on Talk of the Nation, NPR's call-in show, every Wednesday at 2:40 p.m. Remember, if the online column leaves you craving more, then you should tune in to TOTN each Wednesday for your fix! And if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it on the Web. A lovely, if worrisome, note this week from Alison Boor, who writes, "I never was all that interested in politics, but I do listen to you on TOTN and read your column. You've also inspired me to collect buttons from this year's candidates. I guess I'm becoming interested against my will. Thanks – I think."

On this week's show: the vote on Gonzales; Bush talks immigration on the Hill; and an unusual earmark from Alaska to Florida.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly podcast, which can be found here. It's hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself. Some good news to report: While NPR refuses to release listener totals, I've been told by a reliable source that the podcast is immensely popular in Albania.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: Sen. Cliff Hansen, a two-term Wyoming Republican, announces he will not seek re-election in 1978 (June 13, 1977).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: