We have had a lot of dialog on the performance of Alberto Gonzales over the past few weeks, and yesterday's live-blog and follow-up post has crystallized a few arguments on both sides. Chief among them are that a boss can fire anyone at any time with no consequences, and that criticism of Gonzales makes one less Republican and/or conservative. I'm going to challenge both of those here.
First, anyone who thinks that at-will employment in the United States means in practical terms that a boss can fire anyone at any time with no reason whatsoever has never managed or employed people. These days, that's not even true during probationary periods. Had I walked up to one of my employees in my past job who had been with the company for any length at all and just told them to clear out their desk without ever having communicated any performance issues in detail to them, it would set several unpleasant consequences in motion.
First, if the employee had half a brain, they would contact a lawyer, who would then file a lawsuit requiring me to release all of my personnel records -- and not just for the fired employee, but for all of my employees, past and present, to see if I unfairly discriminated against this employee. I would have to pay an attorney a lot of money to defend me. I would then get deposed by attorneys on the reasons for that termination, and hauled into court to answer the same questions all over again. If I didn't have a good reason for firing that person and/or if I deviated in any way from the normal termination process of my company, the former employee would (a) win a wrongful termination judgment against my company and perhaps me personally, (b) I would lose lots of money, and (c) it would create a difficult situation with the employees I had left, who understandably would be less than comfortable to see their colleague depart so abruptly.
And that's if I owned the company. If I was a CEO of a public corporation and allowed that to happen, I might get fired. If I was a manager, I'd most certainly get fired.
[see update below]
Several commenters have called me and the Senators criticizing Gonzales "fair-weather Republicans." In my opinion, that's ridiculous. I support Republicans because they usually represent competence and smaller government, not because I belong to the Republican Tribe. I'm not going to support or defend obvious incompetence on the part of Republicans, and Gonzales has been an incompetent in this matter, as Tom Coburn rightly points out. I've said it before -- if people want to read GOP apologetics, they can be found at www.gop.com. Here, you get my honest opinion, and not just a dose of tribalism.
Four months after the firings and after a month of preparation, Gonzales still couldn't completely answer Brownback on why each attorney got fired. He testified that he hadn't even met with most of them about those reasons he could recite. He admitted that he wrongly accused them of poor performance in his public statements. He told the Senate yesterday that he objected to the plan Kyle Sampson presented him in November about rolling out the terminations, and then could not answer why that plan got followed over his objections by his aide.
Is that competence? Is this our argument for 2008 in asking the American public to trust Republicans with power? If it is, and we cannot bring ourselves to demand better from this administration, be prepared for a very disappointing 2008.
I'll let Tom Coburn finish this out, and leave the last word to CQ commenters:
I believe there's consequences to a mistake. I was quoted in the paper as saying I think this has been handled in a very incompetent manner. And I believe most people -- I don't care which side of the aisle they are -- would agree with that.
U.S. attorneys' reputation that were involved has been harmed. The confidence in U.S. attorneys throughout this country has been damaged. The reputation of the attorney general's office has been tarnished and brought into question.
I disavow, aggressively, any implication that there was a political nature in this. I know that's the politics of the bloodsport that we're playing. I don't think it had anything to do with it.
But to me, there has to be consequences to accepting responsibility. And I would just say, Mr. Attorney General, it's my considered opinion that the exact same standards should be applied to you in how this was handled.
And it was handled incompetently. The communication was atrocious. It was inconsistent. It's generous to say that there were misstatements. That's a generous statement. And I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered.
And I believe that the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.
UPDATE: I left out an entire paragraph here, in which I intended to close the loop on my analogy to the private sector. So here it is:
Now, we have heard that the President has the ability to fire any of these prosecutors at any time, for whatever reason he sees fit, as long as it isn't to obstruct justice. That's true. It presupposes some kind of reason, however; one shouldn't fire people without having a reason. So what were the reasons for firing each of these people? Even Gonzales couldn't explain them after a month of research and preparation for this hearing. He offered some performance issues, but couldn't say whether he had ever communicated those issues to the attorneys themselves before or during the terminations. And regardless of the political nature of the appointments, the AG and the White House had to know that people would ask questions about the rather unprecedented terminations -- and it's obvious that despite their planning, they had no good or consistent response to them.