WASHINGTON—Harriet Miers' withdrawal from her Supreme Court nomination gives President Bush an opportunity to mend relations with his rebellious conservative political base, but there's risk for him in trying to do that.
Miers' rejection by conservatives taught Bush that he can't take them for granted, but he can't take the Senate for granted, either. In his current weak political state, his best bet may be to try to please them both, avoid a fight and choose a nominee who's as broadly acceptable as Chief Justice John G. Roberts proved to be—if that's possible.
Conservative activists want the president to pick someone in the mold of Antonin Scalia, an assertive ideological legal warrior. They ache for a fight with Senate Democrats over an appointment that could shift the closely divided Supreme Court decisively to the right.
Such a finger-in-the-Democrats'-eye nomination would help Bush get conservatives back in line, but might erode his support in the Senate. Many senators of both parties are nervous as they head into a congressional election year in 2006. The public mood is sour, and voters generally are turning thumbs down on the president and Congress. The last thing many senators want is a noisy, divisive fight over a court nominee who voters may be persuaded is extreme.
Bush faces this squeeze at a moment when he needs his conservative base more than at any other time since he took office. A federal grand jury could indict one or more of his top White House aides soon. A majority of Americans think the Iraq war wasn't worth the price. And soaring fuel costs threaten to drag down the economy.
But conservatives no longer toe the president's line automatically—the Miers fight broke the dam on that—and they know he needs them now, so they're calling in their chits.
"The withdrawal gives him the opportunity to nominate somebody who does have a clear conservative record and will unite his conservative base behind him," said Gary Bauer, an influential social conservative who opposed Miers. "This is a good time for this to happen. He's under pressure in a number of areas, whether it's Iraq or the possibility of indictments."
Social conservatives such as Bauer want Bush to pick a fight with Senate Democrats, arguing that it's better for him to fight with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., than with his own base, as he did over Miers.
With 55 Republican votes in the Senate—enough to approve a nomination and abolish the Democratic minority's right to block a nomination—"that's a fight he would win," Bauer said. "And it's one conservatives want and hope for."
But what stirs activist passions beyond the Beltway looks different in the Senate. Bill McInturff, a veteran Republican pollster, cautioned that "there's a difference between an out-of-power party that wants major fights and being a governing coalition."
As the party in power, the most crucial goal is to get a nominee confirmed and onto the court—not to steamroll Democrats, especially when the public mood is so dour.
"I don't know if we're at a moment in time when we're going to have the most dependable 55 votes in the Senate," McInturff said. "The president has a low approval rating and there are fairly weak numbers for the election environment. ... When politicians have that kind of environment, their first instinct tends to be `What do I need to do to preserve my own seat?' rather than `What does the president need?'''
That means Bush's best bet may be to look for a political clone of Roberts. His intellect wowed the Senate, his background in the Reagan White House made most conservatives comfortable and his lack of a paper trail of rulings and speeches left him without a target for Democrats to attack.
"John Roberts carried this off because of his brilliance," even diehard liberal Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., conceded Thursday.
But finding another Roberts who's palatable to conservatives may be harder than ever.
As David Keene, the head of the American Conservative Union, noted in a recent interview, conservatives no longer offer Bush unquestioning support.
"The Miers thing really hurt. ... The real problem is the administration has become less and less willing to work with its allies ... and more and more desirous to make sure we just follow along in lockstep with everything they do. ... That's over," Keene said.
"We can't be expected to simply blindly follow any president or any administration. That's not our role. To the extent that we've done that, we made a mistake."
(James Kuhnhenn contributed to this article.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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