Can Lost Norms of Reciprocity Be Restored?

The latest revelation about the Bush Administration treating the official levers of power as mere extensions of the Republican Party concerns the Surgeon General. (My personal favorite in pettiness is the admonition that he not mention the Special Olympics because of its association with the Kennedy family.) This continues the disturbing pattern we see throughout this administration: Many important positions are doled out to loyal hacks (something that happens in all administrations but that GW Bush has raised to an art form) and then the hacks pressure the professionals with integrity to toe the party line. From FEMA to Justice to the Surgeon General and beyond, the signature of the current administration is to put the partisan (and not just policy) agenda first.

Which brings me to my question: Is it possible for the prior informal norms and boundaries to be restored in the next Democratic administration? (I'll put aside the equally interesting question of what would happen if a different kind of Republican were to follow Bush as President.) One possibility would be that a President Clinton or Obama would decide that it's payback time and do the same things in the other direction. If we regard Presidential politics as a repeat-player game, the expected strategy would be for a Democratic President to engage in his or her own "partisanization" of government for a short while, and then go back to respecting norms of reciprocal respect (such as selecting prosecution targets based on the severity of their alleged crimes, rather than their party affiliation or which party benefits---the true scandal of the US Attorney firings, if true). But even if this tit-for-tat approach works in the computer models, somehow in Presidential politics it seems unlikely to succeed. A new Democratic administration could come in and say it was going to respect the old norms, or it could ape the Bush tactics and further undermine those norms, but if it starts off doing the latter, it seems doomed to continue to do so.

Perhaps a third possibility would be for a Democratic administration to pay lip service to the old norms but in practice further undermine those norms. This is pretty much what the Bush administration has done. E.g., they deny that US Attorneys were fired for being insufficiently partisan in selecting targets and they deny that they pressured the Surgeon General to treat the health of the Republican Party as more important than the health of the nation. Eventually, the notion of following professional expertise in government administration may come to look like adherence to precedent under CJ Roberts (and arguably under his predecessors going back a long way): something that everybody praises and professes to practice but that they actually ignore.