Tuesday, September 18, 2007

George W. got his man yesterday, with a Rose Garden announcement that Michael Mukasey of New York will be his new attorney general. Well, maybe. Presidents propose, senators dispose.

The president presented his candidate as a man who understands the Islamist threat to the nation’s security and knows how to deal with it. “Judge Mukasey is clear-eyed about the threat our nation faces,” the president said. “He knows what it takes to fight this war effectively and he knows how to do it in a manner consistent with our laws and our Constitution.”

That sounds about right. Mr. Mukasey, no longer a judge, presided over the trial of the infamous “blind sheik” who plotted to blow up the United Nations more than a decade ago. But these credentials are not likely to sway Democrats who think international terrorism is but a figment of the president’s imagination.

Some Democrats, gloating over how they backed the president away from Ted Olson, warned the president not to put a coffee cup on the Cabinet table for Mr. Mukasey just yet. Others give the president a half-hearted salute for taking their advice, but with an implied warning not to try to slip the leash.

Chuck Schumer, the senator from New York who usually makes the most noise against any Republican initiative, endorsed Mr. Mukasey. That surprised no one, since it was Mr. Schumer who first nominated him as the attorney general who could pleasure Democrats if any nominee could.

But Pat Leahy of Vermont, eager to live up to his reputation as the most disagreeable senator, promised to make his usual trouble. He hasn’t yet found anything wrong with the nominee, but he’s not ready to stop nagging the president about Alberto Gonzales, who completed his last day on the job yesterday.

“The next attorney general needs to be someone who can begin the process of restoring the Department of Justice to its proper mission,” he said. “I am hopeful once we obtain the information we need and have the opportunity to consider the nomination we will be able to make progress in this regard.”

This is just the way senators talk; what he actually means is that he’s hopeful that if he can stall the confirmation hearings for a little while maybe someone will dig up an old parking ticket or a disregarded summons to study hall in his junior year of high school. Once the Washington circus starts, who knows what a blivet of senators can make of it?

Harry Reid, the Senate leader of the Democrats, said he was glad the president listened to his tormentors and “put aside his plan to replace Alberto Gonzales with another partisan insider,” obviously referring to Ted Olson. He conceded Mr. Mukasey’s “strong professional credentials and a reputation for independence,” but there would be no “rush to judgment.”

The White House, aware that many conservatives think the president let Mssrs Reid, Schumer and Leahy pick his attorney general, reacted sharply when a reporter merely asked whether fierce Democratic opposition to Mr. Olson persuaded the president to switch rather than fight. Replied Dana Perino, the press spokesman: “You’ve covered the president long enough to know that type of bluster from Capitol Hill does not weigh on his decisions.” Even the Democrats who tried to say nice things about Mr. Mukasey leavened their sugar with salt. The key word in the praise was “independence,” and it’s the president the Democrats expect the new attorney general to be independent of. “The next attorney general will have to be an independent and incorruptible lawyer,” said Teddy Kennedy, ever the stickler for incorruptibility. Dick Durbin of Illinois repeated the litany of things Mr. Mukasey can’t be found guilty of — torture, “warrantless surveillance,” politicization of the Justice Department, mopery, pillage — and added: “I hope his background … will give him the independence necessary for the job.”

The Democrats may in the end merely show George W. the proof of the ancient maxim that “if they’ll hang you for stealing a goat, you might as well take a sheep.”

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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