No sooner had George W. Bush passed the first test facing a new president - naming competent choices for his cabinet - than speculation arose about how he would meet the second, steering their confirmations through a closely divided Senate.
At first, Mr. Bush was praised for filling his White House and cabinet with "adults," a decided move away from pizza-stained budget submissions and all-night bull sessions. Then, the media began asking which nominee would succumb to a well-organized assault from the opposition.
One has already fallen. Critics of Linda Chavez, nominated as Labor secretary, say they had not wanted her to depart over a "personal mistake." They are less clear as to whether they consider that mistake to be giving shelter to an illegal alien or failing to divulge that humanitarian gesture to the Bush team.
They feign sadness that they had been unable to defeat the nomination on the "merits," which they insist are her "strident" conservative opinions. They argue that what they most wanted to see was a philosophical discussion of the kind the Senate held before it rejected Robert Bork for a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987.
Judge Bork, though, was in contention for a life appointment. Cabinet members stay in their jobs for much shorter periods. Not that such distinctions matter to ideologues. Those "idealists" who demanded and got their high-level discourse sent their guerrillas rummaging about Washington video rental records in search of something embarrassing to Mr. Bork. (So much for their concern for privacy.)
In the case of John Ashcroft, Bush's designee for attorney general, and Gale Norton, his pick for Interior secretary, Bush's critics on the left will get the fight they claim to prefer. They will lose both, and for three good reasons: the superior qualifications of the two cabinet hopefuls, the specious nature of arguments offered against them, and a fundamental principle that undergirds the Republican ideal of self-government.
Alexander Hamilton understood all that. In the Federalist Papers, the classic defense of the Constitution and the principles it enshrined, he cited the Senate's "advise and consent" powers as a safeguard against nominees of "unfit character" or predisposed to corruption. Believing that "the true test of a good government is its aptitude to produce a good administration," he insisted that the president be free to discharge the public's business with people of his choice.
The use of "advise and consent" for the purpose of obtaining nominees more closely aligned to the Senate's way of thinking would, he argued, transfer the power of appointment from the executive to the legislative branch, which the Constitution forbids.
On nominations, Hamilton observed: "But his nomination may be overruled: This it certainly may, yet it can only be to make place for another nomination.... The person ultimately appointed must be the object of his [the president's] preference, though perhaps not in the first degree. It is also not very probable that his nomination would often be overruled. The Senate could not be tempted by the preference they might feel to another to reject the one proposed; because they could not assure themselves that the person they might wish would be brought forward by a second or by any subsequent nomination...."
None who oppose Mr. Ashcroft or Ms. Norton has called the character of either into question.
In a most ironic twist, they challenge Ashcroft's fitness on the grounds that he is a man of deeply held religious convictions. Who other than a man with a firm moral compass is better poised to restore integrity to a department that has been damaged and compromised by eight years of scandal and mismanagement?
Those who argue that Ashcroft and Norton cannot be relied on to enforce laws with which they disagree misunderstand the meaning of oaths and misread American history. Harry Truman, a hero of the Democratic Party, vetoed the Taft-Hartley bill, which curbed the power of labor unions. Yet, as president, he evoked its powers six times.
As Hamilton foresaw, senators of all persuasions have been reluctant to seek to change an administration's policies by refusing him his choice of minions.
As George W. Bush reminded his critics, Gale Norton's position on opening part of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge is the same as his.
Most Senates have preferred to further their policy objectives the old-fashioned way, through legislation and elections. Nor would Hamilton be surprised that in spite of inflammatory rhetoric and well-financed "seek and destroy" missions of recent years, the Senate has rejected only two cabinet designees in the past 50 years.
John Tower's rejection in 1989 for secretary of Defense was attributed to character deficiencies.
Forty years earlier, in a vote universally regarded as one of partisan retribution, the Senate voted down the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, as President Eisenhower's secretary of Commerce. Both sides left that battle bruised enough not to even think about putting another cabinet designee who met Hamilton's test through that kind of ordeal ever again. The present Senate would do itself and the nation a great favor by following in that tradition.
Alvin S. Felzenbergis director of the Mandate for Leadership Program at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor