As much as I've complained about the Republicans in these columns, I have to say I envy them for discovering first that you never run out of room hiding things in plain sight. The number of times they have appeared in front of the public with the cookie jar still in their hands and gotten away with it is fascinating.
According to CNN, in February of 2005, Harriet Miers, a senior White House official, sent an e-mail with the suggestion that the White House just purge all the U.S. Attorneys in the justice department and replace them with "new blood." Of course, since the scandal of the firing of U.S. Attorneys for political reasons broke, the administration has distanced themselves from this original plan and indeed "forgotten" who originally pitched the idea. But I get the feeling they would have been better off if they had employed their old method of brazen political coercion.
If they had emptied the justice department of U.S. attorneys and recreated the federal law enforcement system as an arm of the Republican Party it would have been, to anyone paying attention, a heavy-handed partisan undermining of the rule of law, but it wouldn't have been a scandal. One of the things that makes Bush the Rubbermaid president, to whom no allegation will stick, is the fact that his administration always acts like they weren't doing anything wrong. One example is when they contracted tens of billions of dollars to their friends and coworkers' companies to rebuild Iraq and claimed there was nothing wrong with that, even after billions came up unaccounted for and the roofs of Iraqi police stations started collapsing.
Acting in secret seems to be an unmatched admission of wrongdoing to the American public, so much so that I think this whole episode wouldn't have half the damaging potential if they had just done this the old fashioned W way - right in everyone's face.
I think one of the elements that made the audacity of the Bush administration approach to politics such a success was that by doing things like sweeping the justice department clean, they leave no one in government to launch major corruption investigations against Republican
congressmen. If they had done it when Harriet Miers first suggested it, they wouldn't be in the uncomfortable position of explaining how the people who were doing so wound up on the short list to be fired. It would have stretched the precedent of an incoming president appointing a new staff because it was a term late. But it wouldn't look like they were living above the law.
Of course it could be true that the tactics are less audacious because Bush doesn't enjoy the 90 percent approval rating he once had. One could argue that trying to exploit the system behind closed doors is an adaptation to and a consequence of the hostile political climate the Republicans now face, not the other way around. But I think it was an essential element to the imperviousness of the Bush administration to act as if their methods and intentions had integrity. Slinking around behind closed doors, saying all the senior officials have "hazy memories" about the firings, admitting mistakes were made, then claiming obliviousness and rolling over on underlings like Kyle Sampson in the Justice Department is only going to fuel the fire in the public.
That mixing of a mild admission of wrongdoing with an attempt to evade the repercussions
only gives the opposition party, the media and the public more of an axe to grind. They would be better off if they just used the old Cheney defense - nothing is wrong here and it is underhanded for you to ask.