President Bush moved swiftly over the weekend to elevate his nomination of Judge John Roberts from just a plain old Supreme Court Justice to Chief Justice of the United States. According to White House sources, the decision to move Roberts was made for several reasons, not the least of which was that given the other pressing political realities in Washington, a swap of Rehnquist for Roberts was the easiest and even politically most elegant thing to do under the circumstances.
"Ideologically, the two men are very similar. They are similar in temperament, and style," says the White House staffer. "And it just felt right. Roberts is a man who served this Chief Justice ably, and who became his friend. Rehnquist was pleased with his initial nomination, and I'm sure he's pleased with this change in nomination."
In terms of slotting ideological soul mate for similar soul mate, the Roberts elevation makes it even more difficult for Democrats to block this nomination, and it again opens up an opportunity to bring balance to the Court after decades of liberal imbalance.
The thinking among those in the know or almost-know is that the Bush team is again looking at a list of potential nominees heavily weighted toward conservatives, with a few women in the mix.
One name almost assuredly not on the list right now is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, particularly after his remarks last week in which he seemed to give Democrats cover to push the boundaries in questioning Roberts. Gonzales said he believed it "appropriate" for the Senate Judiciary Committee to ask Judge Roberts about his personal views on abortion.
That said, according to White House sources, there remains interest in putting Gonzales on the court should the opportunity arise, after satisfying the conservative base, to make yet another "historic" nomination for Attorney General. "But the thinking there is that those moves won't happen for another year," says an outside adviser to the White House on such matters.
Right now, the name being strategically dropped in some White House advisory circles is Judge Edith Jones. Jones's name took on increased traction late in the O'Connor search process, and the thinking is that while she has an extensive paper trail in the federal judicial system, she is not well known in Washington circles.
Judge Edith Clement was believed to be the White House's first pick for the O'Connor seat. Her name is not believed to be on the short-list, according to White House and outside sources who have advised the White House in the past on such matters. "That may be because she is known from the first round of vetting," says an outside source. "It may be because there were issues that arose last time out. Given how this White House operates, no one should read anything into it until the actual announcement is made."
FRISKED BY FRIST
Sen. Bill Frist rode to the rescue in more ways than one last week, with his call for a comprehensive congressional investigation into the failings of planning and execution of preparing for Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing relief effort.
Frist's efforts weren't intended as a slam at President Bush, who has taken a pummeling in the media from Democrats in Congress, their operatives, and cooperative journalists who were willing to set facts aside for the opportunity to create a political fire storm around the Republican president.
Instead, Frist's call for an investigation sent many Democrats running for cover. "If you look at the history of appropriations and funding of federal dollars, no delegation served their state and major cities better than Louisiana," says a Senate staffer. "In the end, if the Democrats want to place blame, they know the behavior of their party members, for a generation really the only party in power in New Orleans and Louisiana, is damning, and they don't want to draw any more attention to the issue than the media wants to."
Senate Appropriations Committee staff late last week were drawing up statistics on just where the hundreds of millions of dollars set aside for New Orleans over the years, on everything from community support, federal policing dollars, emergency preparedness, and levy control and modernization.
"Let's put it this way," says an Appropriations staffer. "There is a fair degree of certainty up here that dollars that should have gone for projects and programs that might have been helpful in New Orleans' time of need was never used for those purposes. If I were a local politician or a state or local bureaucrat down there, I'd be nervous about now."
Further lost in the aftermath of Katrina's furor was the fact that neither New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin nor Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco had wanted to order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, a city of 485,000 people. Both politicians had been avoiding the issue until Saturday, August 27, when President Bush called both Democrats and, according to congressional and White House sources, essentially demanded that a mandatory evacuation be ordered. The order was made on the 28th.
At a news conference announcing the evacuation, Nagin also went on the record predicting that the storm's surge would top the city's protective levees, yet in the aftermath, Nagin was quick to place blame for the levees on Washington.
"There is absolutely no question that federal support should have been put into place sooner and that we were caught flat-footed," says a Homeland Security Department staffer. "But when everything is said and done, nobody is going to want to be in the way of the political fallout that comes from a thorough investigation of what happened down there. And that includes Democrats."
By late Sunday, what had emerged was a picture less to do with Washington, and far more to do with incompetence on the state and local level. Federal emergency preparedness officials were poring over Louisiana's and New Orleans' emergency plans. "There is a very good reason everyone down there has clammed up about beating on the President," says the Homeland Security staffer. "The only people who continue to do it are the likes of [Tim] Russert and the New York Times, and they are just feeding off the tragedy for political gain, nothing more. In the end, it's the very people they have been listening to for the past week that they will have to put under a microscope."