With the Camera Off, Chris Dodd Speaks Up

Chris Dodd, who has failed to rise above the margin of error in any poll conducted since he announced his presidential candidacy, happened into an unusually bright spotlight on Sunday, as the latest White House aspirant to appear opposite Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.”

The Connecticut senator, never one to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, didn’t do much during the performance to advance his candidacy, providing mechanically sound but inspiration-deficient answers that only confirmed that he’d be vastly better cast as the Senate Majority Leader than as a presidential nominee.

But after the influential “Meet the Press” audience had turned its television sets off, Mr. Dodd at last offered a truly newsworthy pronouncement that might have ramifications both on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill. In a statement released by his campaign, he became the first senator to announce his opposition to Michael Mukasey’s suddenly shaky nomination for Attorney General.

“Mr. Mukasey’s position that the President does not have to heed the law disqualifies him from being the chief attorney for the United States,” Mr. Dodd said in his statement.

“We have seen for too long, and at great expense to our national security, an administration that has systematically attacked the rule of law and turned our Justice Department into a political wing of the White House. I’m afraid that Mr. Mukasey as Attorney General would be more of the same.”

Immediately, Mr. Dodd’s move raised the question of whether his fellow Democratic candidates will feel compelled to follow suit, potentially complicating Mr. Mukasey’s confirmation math, since there are four sitting senators seeking the Democratic nomination.

It’s not that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or even Joe Biden are fearful of losing ground to Mr. Dodd, who has resorted to similar tricks in the past in unsuccessful efforts to jump-start his campaign. But his eagerness to oppose Mr. Mukasey, who infuriated Democrats with his evasive non-answers on questions about torture and presidential authority in his confirmation hearings last week, points to an opening among the Democratic base. And with the next Democratic debate scheduled for Tuesday night in Philadelphia, Mr. Dodd’s rivals will have a nationally televised platform to score points on the issue.

The politics of the issue are straightforward. Mr. Obama, in particular, would seem to have a powerful incentive to follow Mr. Dodd’s lead, since he’s now furiously assuring donors and key supporters that he is capable of infusing his campaign with a sense of urgency and purpose. Forcefully opposing Mr. Mukasey could help Mr. Obama burnish his “fighting” credentials. And if Mrs. Clinton doesn’t immediate join in, Mr. Obama would be able to use the issue to build doubt among the party base about whether she has the backbone they seek in a leader. He could also benefit if he’s seen as goading her into eventually opposing Mr. Mukasey.

That assumes, of course, that Mrs. Clinton won’t beat Mr. Obama to the punch. Her campaign has taken on more water than it ever expected in the wake of her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which is viewed by the same party base as either authorization for a military attack on Iran or as a propaganda tool for President Bush if he ultimately decides to pursue military action. Getting out in front on the Mukasey issue could help her make peace with the left.

Mr. Mukasey’s nomination was supposed to be a simple affair. He comes from outside the usual universe of Bush appointees, a key consideration for senators from both parties who were appalled by Alberto Gonzales’ reverence for the man who appointed him. But his confirmation hearings last week were a disaster. He may have sounded more competent than Mr. Gonzales, but Mr. Mukasey was every bit as evasive when it came to topics like torture, with Mr. Mukasey providing a hair-splittingly incoherent non-answer to the simple question, Is water-boarding torture? He offered a similarly perplexing response when he was quizzed about the limits of presidential power.

Mr. Dodd’s declaration of opposition is unlikely to sink the Mukasey nomination. Given the even split in the chamber—it’s assumed that independent Joe Lieberman will vote with the G.O.P. on the nomination—Mr. Mukasey would still only need a handful of Democratic votes to win confirmation, which he should be able to secure.

If his statement does at least serve to catalyze the Democratic opposition, Chris Dodd will still, in all likelihood, end up tangling with the margin of error in polls when the dust settles. But score one for the Senator: he’s the first Democratic candidate to spot the obvious opening on this issue and to try to seize on it. With the Camera Off, Chris Dodd Speaks Up