Waller: The Republicans certainly hope this was the sacrificial lamb, but Democrats are saying behind the scenes that Chavez's departure just widens the target on [Attorney General-designate] John Ashcroft. If Chavez's nomination had come down to votes, she would have taken away votes against Ashcroft some Democrats have been advised they can really only vote against one nominee, not two. The same logic goes for political organizations battling Ashcroft: Originally, liberal groups were going to have to dilute resources on Chavez, but now they can devote all their energies to defeating Ashcroft's nomination.
Chavez insisted her decision was totally independent of the Bush camp, but do people suspect the President-elect urged her to withdraw?
Waller: Bush never called specifically to ask her to step down, but the transition team essentially showed her to the door. The Bush camp was extremely annoyed that all this had to come out the way it did.
Q: What's the response among congressional Democrats to Chavez's withdrawal? Is there a sense of vindication?
Waller: It's more a sense of relief that they never had to go into bloody battle over Chavez. They're simultaneously looking forward to and dreading a big fight. Most figure it's best if a nomination can be defeated before the vote is called; that way they can send the message that polarizing, conservative nominees will not be successful without engaging in full-scale combat.
Q: Any word on who might replace Linda Chavez as the nominee for Labor?
Waller: Nothing specific. There's been talk of other Republicans. Bush is saying he has a surprise, which could mean he'll put up a Democrat or a moderate Republican, although Bush may feel he still owes a debt to the hard right.
Q: But if Bush just stands by Ashcroft during what promises to be a rough hearing, couldn't that satisfy any debt he feels to conservatives?
Waller: The conservatives may very well be satisfied with Ashcroft, but I think a lot of them are worried about how quickly and cleanly Bush cut his losses with Chavez, and they may want another nominee as insurance. What, they may be thinking, will happen when the Ashcroft nomination hits its first bump in the road and the confirmation runs into trouble? Will Bush just abandon ship?