What to expect from the Gonzales hearing

On Tuesday, Attorney General Gonzales will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The appearance is being billed as a make-or-break event for Gonzales, and that view might be right. However, it’s not clear how well Gonzales must do to survive. If President Bush still likes Gonzales and has confidence in him, then the Attorney General probably can keep his job as long as he doesn’t lay an egg.
That’s not to deny the difficulty of testifying under these circumstances. The Senate Democrats and their accomplices (or so it seems) at media outlets like the Washington Post have opened up multiple fronts in their war on the Attorney General. Gonzales must be prepared to answer questions about the eight U.S. attorneys he replaced, the individuals he replaced them with, the U.S. attorneys he did not replace, the U.S. attorneys he has appointed to fill vancacies other than the eight originally in question, the U.S. attorneys he has brought to Justice Department headquarters to serve in other capacities even as they remain in charge of their offices back hom, morale at U.S. attorneys offices throughout the country, his communications with the White House, his communications with his staff (especially Kyle Sampson), his past (and in some csaes erroneous) statements about some of these matters, and so forth. He can be questioned about any of thousands of email messages and other documents that have been turned over to the committee. And the Senate Dems have paid a top Washington, D.C. law firm to help them figure out how to embarrass and/or trip up Gonzales. The price of misstatements this time will be allegations of perjury.
However, Gonzales has several potential advantages. The first is the poor quality of the Dems on the Committee. As was apparent during the Roberts and Alito hearings, they just aren’t very good at asking questions. Perhaps for that reason, they prefer to give speeches. That approach tends to take the witness off-the-hook and at the same time win him sympathy. Faced with a less formidable adversary than Roberts and Alito, the Dems may be willing to engage this witness. I wouldn’t bet that they’ll do it consistently, though.
Second, the fact that the “scandal” has so many supposed facets may conspire in the end against the Dems. The scandals that tend to bring people down usually are about one or two fairly straightforward things. If the Dems successfully can portray this affair as an attempt to derail Abramoff-related investigations or to use the Justice Department to aid Republican politicians in New Mexico, then it will resonate. But it looks like the Dems have no evidence that Gonzales was trying to accomplish these goals. Thus, the Dems probably will resort to a scatter-gun approach. Certainly, they can embarrass Gonzales by pointing to a few instances in which he misspoke about the facts. But once Gonzales apologizes and explains what he really meant, the proceeding could easily lose its focus and its interest to anyone outside the beltway. The Washington Post and the New York Times will have a year’s supply of stories picking at various statements by the Attorney General, but the stories may not mean much.
In the end, the Senators to watch are probably the Committee’s Republicans, not its Democrats. If enough Republicans come down hard on Gonzales, or show dissatisfaction with his answers, that might be an indication that Gonzales has done sufficiently poorly to be in serious trouble.
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