Two Meanings of ‘Political’

Michael Kinsley praises a David Brooks column that’s behind the NYT subscription firewall, for nailing a distinction that many have failed to make in the controversy over the administration’s firing of eight U.S. Attorneys.

Brooks’s distinction is between two different conceptions of the word “political.” Or rather, like most nice clear distinctions, there actually is a spectrum of meaning. US Attorneys are supposed to be political in the sense that in performing their duties they reflect the policies of the president who appointed them. If the president believes strongly in prosecuting pornographers, he is not just within his rights but within his duties to fire a prosecutor who ignores those cases. If, at the other extreme, he wants a prosecutor to drop a case against a large contributor, that is political in the bad sense. And as Brooks says, the eight US Attorneys in the present controversy seem to offer a mixed bag.Yes, of course, even one overt attempt to suppress a legitimate prosecution for corruption is one too many—it doesn’t have to be a majority of the eight to be an outrage.

Kevin Drum‘s invocation of Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre is a useful one. Rather obviously, firing a prosecutor because he’s getting too close to the president or his friends is outrageous. (It’s not illegal, however.)

The problem with the analogy here, though, is that it’s not clear that this happened in one, let alone all eight, of the firings now under scrutiny. Brooks draws a good roadmap:

[W]hat’s striking in reading through the Justice Department e-mail messages is that senior people in that agency seem never to have thought about the proper role of politics in their decision-making. They reacted like chickens with their heads cut off when this scandal broke because they could not articulate the differences between a proper political firing and an improper one.

Moreover, they had no coherent sense of honor. Alberto Gonzales apparently never communicated a code of conduct to guide them as they wrestled with various political pressures. That’s a grievous failure of leadership.

Steven Taylor, a staunch Republican who voted twice for Bush, has had enough:

While the jury is still out on the severity of this scandal, the bottom line is that it is impossible to say that this has been handled well by anyone in the administration. (And before someone claims there is no scandal here, I would note a few incontrovertible issues: 1) DoJ representatives have clearly provided incorrect information to Congress, whether it was purposeful or not remains to be seen; 2) the public has been lied to: the original spin was that these people were fired for poor performance, but it is clear that many were fired with high performance ratings; 3) the public statements about performance has unnecessarily tainted the careers of a number of people (..and for what?); and 4) there are a lot of coincidences regarding fired USAs and political investigations that have not been adequately explained).

Based on what I know now, I would agree in general and disagree on most of the specifics. There’s certainly a sense of hackery in the way this has been handled, from the overzealous reaction to the president’s expressed concern about going after voter fraud to the instinctive CYA mode when Congress started making inquiries. Miers, Gonzales, and others acted like young interns trying to please the boss rather than seasoned executives trying to serve the boss’ greater interests. Professionals perform due diligence and come back and explain to the boss why what he wants can’t be done or at least outline the risks. There’s no evidence I can see that this was done.

At the same time, as myself and others have noted in discussing Alex Knapp‘s post, there’s a lot of gray area in this matter. Not only does “political” have multiple meanings with a continuum of nuance between them, so does “performance.”

For political appointees, the president’s emphases presumably drives the definition. As Kinsley notes, if a U.S. Attorney is failing to be aggressive in going after the types of cases that the president wants prosecuted, he is not performing his job to expectations and should expect to be fired. If, one the other hand, he there is a Saturday Night Massacre situation–the attorney is refusing to prosecute or back off based on partisan pressure–then we have a scandalous situation. There’s suspicion that this is the case in at least a couple of the firings, although I don’t believe it’s yet to be demonstrated beyond circumstantial evidence.

As Jim Henley and others have noted about this and other political brouhahas, the real scandal is often what’s legal. Some things, like the prosecution or non-prosecution of crimes, rather obviously shouldn’t be influenced by partisan political considerations. Yet, the 93 lead federal prosecutors, the Solicitor General, and the Attorney General are all political appointees who, by virtue of that means of selection, are there to carry out the wishes of the president. This creates an inherent appearance of impropriety even when things are kosher.

Because of the wide scope of their duties, the AG and Solicitor General almost have to be appointed by the president. Fortunately, they are highly visible figures (at least in political circles) and Congress and watchdog groups can easily keep an eye over them. Conversely, U.S. Attorneys have a relatively narrow function and most operate in obscurity far from the Capitol. It’s far from clear why they should be hired and fired on a political basis.

Jonathan Singer, in a post making some leaps with which I strongly disagree, ends up in the right place:

While it is certainly expected that an administration would infuse politics into its decision-making process and even consider partisan ramifications at any turn, the degree to which the Bush administration has relied on partisan politics to make decisions and to which it has partisanized the levers of the federal government is truly unprecedented. Although it is possible that individually each of these actions has been legal (or at least some of them), there is no question that President Bush has taken his actions to the boundary of what is legal in a way that no president, perhaps even including Richard Nixon, has done before. And sadly, we are all, Republicans and Democrats alike, worse off as a result.

My only quibble–and it’s just that, not an excuse–is that Bush is following a trend, not creating one. That is, what I have termed “the politicization of everything” has been going on for quite some time now. Bill Clinton’s administration took it to a level of high art. Unfortunately, its successor, which ran on a pledge to “restore decency and integrity to the Oval Office,” has instead raised the bar.

FILED UNDER: General, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ll repeat what I’ve said before about this scandal (if it is a scandal): what it shows more than anything else is how weakened the Bush Administration is. A strong administration would have shrugged this off the first day.

  2. Steven Plunk says:

    I certainly think the American people have shrugged it off. Ho hum.

  3. cian says:


    All very good points and contributions which help to clear the murk somewhat. But what about the missing emails? Is this a concern, and while I understand the administrations reluctance to subject themselves to a public grilling, wouldn’t a public ‘clear the air’ work in their favour, assuming of course nothing untoward has taken place?

  4. Miers, Gonzales, and others acted like young interns trying to please the boss rather than seasoned executives trying to serve the boss’ greater interests.

    Given that Gonzales is the AG and is supposed to be the chief law enforcement official in the US, the fact that he running around like an intern is scandal enough, I should think.

    There should be a higher standard of performance for these individuals given the positions that they hold.

    And again, the fact that these mid-term firing are utterly unprecedented, are in the context of this new, Senate-dodging power from the Patriot Act and that fact that a number of these people were investigating Republicans and/or not investigating Democrats enough (e.g., Iglesias) for me makes it difficult to understand how this is to be considered a nothing story about a normal exercise of presidential power.

    That the actual firings were legal I do not dispute, but if that’s the standard for scandal (was it legal?), then I suppose we get the government we deserve. Sometimes incompetence is scandalous in and of itself.

    If we had paid more attention to signs of incompetence in the execution of the post-invasion situation in Iraq, for example, we might be in a different position vis-a-vis the Middle East at this point in time.

    Four and five years ago I ignored or rationalized any number of actions by key actors in this administration and look where it got us. I am no longer willing to give the President and his team the benefit of the doubt–they lost that privilege a while back.

    Further, the operation of the AG’s office links up to other key issues such as the recent problem with national security letters.

    If these folks can’t handle relatively simple issues like personnel, what are they screwing up in other aspects of their job?

    Further, I must convince that I remain unconvinced that there weren’t political (in a very negative sense) motivations behind some of these firings.

  5. James Joyner says:


    I’m working on a piece for TCS that will address some of those things. The problem is that the debate has hinged on the micro issues rather than the bigger picture.

    And, yeah, there has been a lot of amateur hour here.

  6. Andy says:

    That the actual firings were legal I do not dispute

    That’s quite a leap of faith.

    Why give this administration the benefit of the doubt, when they have repeatedly lied about the issue? The “yes, but it’s legal” is exactly the line that the administration is trying to perpetuate.

    The evidence as it currently stands show quite a bit of potential for illegal behavior in the underlying issue. It’s not just the coverup. It is illegal to obstruct justice and interfere with investigations.

  7. Andy,

    I have been arguing for a week at least that “yes, but it’s legal” is an insufficient explanation.

    What you are talking about (obstruction of justice, perjury, etc) are not, per se, about the act of firing the USAs in question. The president can fire them–that isn’t the issue here.

  8. James,

    I will look forward to reading the piece.

    I will be curious as to how you define the following:

    The problem is that the debate has hinged on the micro issues rather than the bigger picture.

    I think that some of what I have been talking about it very much about macro-level issues of how a president uses his power.

    Even if none of the more dramatic allegations have any merit or not, I will find this situation disturbing.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Even if none of the more dramatic allegations have any merit or not, I will find this situation disturbing.

    Agreed. I defend it only in the micro-context of how the rules of the game have evolved. My macro view is that it’s high time to change those rules.

  10. Here are my views on what I consider two macro-level elements of this story