Politics Over Performance

Bill Scher

Much of the focus of the Senate’s questioning of Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ former chief of staff, is on how Sampson’s story squares with other Justice Department and White House officials, especially because Sampson and others risk being busted for misleading Congress, and folks are looking to save themselves and shift blame.

But beyond the possibility of crimes regarding a cover-up, there’s a bigger issue in this scandal—the fundamental nature of conservative government.

As I’ve blogged before, the Bush Administration has been governing under the guidance of the Heritage Foundation paper, “Taking Charge of Federal Personnel,” issued just as Bush was assuming the presidency.

It sniffed at the “Public Administration Model” of government as “emphasiz[ing] the Progressive ideal–a value-free ‘scientific’ program of government administration.” Instead, it preferred the “Political Administration Model” which it defined as “providing presidential leadership to committed top political officials…holding them and their subordinates personally accountable for achievement of the President’s election-endorsed and value-defined program.”

And it explicitly called for “appointment decisions based on loyalty first and expertise second.”

We have seen this conservative governing philosophy in action in the Bush Era, as political hacks have been empowered to undermine civil servants faithful to the law and the facts.

The pressure on CIA analysts to cook Iraq intelligence. The threatening of the chief Medicare actuary to clam up on the cost of the prescription drug bill. The misinformation pumped out of the Social Security Administration. The muzzling of our scientists regarding global warming.

And now the Prosecutor Purge, an attempt to pack our Justice Department with “loyal Bushies” and turn it into a partisan weapon. And thus today Sampson explained to the Senate Judiciary Commnittee that in regards to the administration’s reasons for purging eight U.S. attorneys, “the distinction between political and performance-related reasons … is in my view largely artificial.”

This is not unique to the Bush Era. As Robert Borosage laid out recently in “Alberto Gonzales: Why Conservatives Can’t Govern”:

Conservative presidents–from Nixon to Reagan to Bush–believe in the imperial presidency. They assume that in the area of the national security, the president operates above the law, or as Nixon put it, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” They operate routinely behind the shield of secrecy and executive privilege, with utter disdain for the law.

Sampson — like Gonzales, like the White House —does not apologize for the Purge itself. He said today the decision was “properly made but poorly explained.” Purging a independent prosecutor for political reasons, in the conservative view, is proper.

Certainly, there are individuals in this scandal who need to be held accountable.

But until the conservative approach to government is excised from the Oval Office, we will not have a government that follows the law, delivers the facts and truly serves the public.

More on the Sampson testimony is on the new Common Sense blog at the Campaign For America’s Future website.

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