Were Senate Democrats just grandstanding during their campaign against former attorney general Alberto Gonzales? They said they weren’t trying to score political points; what they really cared about was ensuring competent leadership at the Justice Department. With today’s confirmation hearing of Michael Mukasey, President Bush’s nominee to replace Gonzales, their sincerity will be tested.
If sheer competence is the criterion, the president has clearly chosen well. Mukasey sat with distinction for nearly two decades as a federal judge in New York City, has been a highly regarded private attorney, and was a federal prosecutor early in his career. He has been widely praised for his administration of one of the busiest courts in the country, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, when he served as chief judge for several years — including during the turmoil of the 9/11 attacks, when his perseverance kept the court operating despite its proximity to the World Trade Center.
Moreover, Mukasey has won plaudits for his handling of the terrorism trial of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman’s jihad organization, as well as litigation over the enemy-combatant detention of José Padilla, the alleged al Qaeda “dirty bomber.” His grasp of complex issues — evident in thoughtful essays he has written about the Patriot Act and the difficulties inherent in confronting militant Islam as a simple law-enforcement matter — has made him a recognized authority on national security, which will remain the Justice Department’s top challenge for the foreseeable future.
Mukasey should thus sail to confirmation, and in better times he would. But the current crop of Senate Democrats, particularly in the Judiciary Committee, often treats confirmation hearings for judges and Justice Department officials as opportunities to perform for their left-wing base prior to delaying or voting down worthy nominees.
Alas, we can probably expect more of the same today. The proceedings should be about Mukasey’s qualifications and views. But it’s more likely that Mukasey will endure Democratic caterwauling about “torture memos,” warrantless wiretaps, data-mining, profiling, enemy-combatant designations, and material-witness detentions. The Democrats will of course maintain all the while that they are serious about preventing terrorist attacks.
The hearing is also likely to be a soapbox for more hyperbole about Gonzales’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Democrats have speciously called this a crime and turned it into a political issue, even as they have decried the Bush administration’s supposed politicization of the Justice Department.
Mukasey both intimately understands and can cogently explain why reforms such as the Patriot Act and the overhaul of FISA are essential. He was on the frontlines of the War on Terror before many in government — Republicans and Democrats — appreciated that Islamic radicals were at war with our country.
Protecting Americans from attack will require that the Justice Department and our investigative agencies continue the vital work they are doing. And that, in turn, will require winning the public’s support. There is only a little over a year to go before the Bush administration exits the stage. But Mukasey still has time to make a valuable contribution to counterterrorism and law-enforcement efforts by convincing Americans that the Justice Department is in capable hands, and that there is a direct correlation between its efforts and their safety.
Today should be an opportunity to begin making that case. Let’s hope that Democrats give him a chance to make it.