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Departures of Gonzales and Rove won't change Bush's agenda

The attorney general's resignation Monday is the last departure of the president's original inner circle.

By the time both Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove announced their resignations from the Bush administration this month, both seemed to have the term "lightning rod" permanently affixed to their names.

Both of them, close friends and aides to President Bush going back to his Texas days, had become media poster boys for the controversial tactics and goals of the Bush presidency: Mr. Gonzales, as White House counsel and then attorney general, was a facilitator for Mr. Bush's bold efforts to expand the reach of the executive branch and then embroiled himself in a political scandal over fired US attorneys that left senators of both parties questioning his honesty and competence.

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Mr. Rove, the architect of Bush's two presidential victories and his closest adviser in the White House, inflamed his opponents' passions over his hardball political tactics.

But their departures change little in the president's prospects for the remaining 17 months of his term. "They were irritants and lightning rods, but given the swath of difficulties this administration faces, [their departures] were not in themselves important enough to change the picture from bleak to rosy," says Bruce Buchanan, a longtime Bush-watcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

Still, Dr. Buchanan adds, Bush retains the tools to accomplish some things in his final 17 months in office. He remains commander in chief and he still has executive authority, both of which put him in a strong position to keep control of Iraq policy until he leaves office. With the Democrats' margin of control in Congress slim, Bush's ability to veto legislation and see it upheld on Capitol Hill affords him great strength, both on Iraq and in budget arguments with the Democrats.

But perhaps most important, Bush retains a "swing for the fences" approach to his presidency – a desire to pursue a big agenda that persists to this day, despite his chronically low job approval ratings. As demonstrated in a speech last week and on Tuesday to veterans' groups, the president continues to promote an optimistic line on what can be achieved in Iraq and refuses to cave in to the Democrats and a few Republicans who are urging a new course.

"He's playing to history, you can tell that in the kind of things he talks about," says Buchanan. "The ambition is still there, and he's still hopeful for his prospects, and he's going to do what he can. But he understands that he's playing with a different hand now; he's talking a little bit like it. He's a bit less full of himself."

The resignation of Gonzales marks the final departure from Bush's original inner circle, mostly from Texas, that gave him a certain comfort level in the transition from governor of a big southern state to president of the United States. With counselor Karen Hughes departing fairly early on, the exodus accelerated this summer with the departure of counselor Dan Bartlett. Andy Card, one of the few non-Texans in the inner circle, left last year. Harriet Miers, another Texan, resigned her post as White House counsel in January, after her own uncomfortable period in the spotlight as a failed Supreme Court nominee.

Remaining on the scene is perhaps the biggest lightning rod of all, Vice President Cheney. Widely seen as the most powerful vice president in history, his office has been the hot house for many of the administration's most controversial policies, namely those surrounding the conduct of the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and efforts to expand the powers of the executive branch. Mr. Cheney is not seen as part of Bush's original inner circle, but rather that of Bush's father, the former president.

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Ultimately, all the intense focus on personalities may have done the Democrats a disservice, says presidential scholar Paul Light, a professor at New York University.

"The Democrats had a pretty aggressive oversight agenda laid out before Gonzales got into trouble," says Mr. Light. "In fact, the Gonzales investigation distracted them from more fertile or productive targets, in terms of drawing distinctions between the Democratic and Republican parties."

Areas the Democrats had planned to focus on include voting rights and enforcement of civil rights statutes.