WASHINGTON—Many conservatives bristled Monday at President Bush's choice of a little-known aide for the Supreme Court.
While some conservatives supported Bush's choice of White House Counsel Harriet Miers, many did not, and they challenged Bush in a display of dissent that was unimaginable in his first term and casts a shadow over his second.
The core of their complaint:
Miers is an unknown without a record who cannot be trusted to take a consistent conservative stand on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Many conservatives complained Monday that Bush promised them someone with a firm, fixed conservative view of constitutional law like Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, but instead has given them someone like David Souter, whom the first President Bush put on the court despite his lack of a record showing clear convictions, and who turned out to be a moderate-liberal.
Combined with growing conservative complaints about soaring federal spending under Bush and his refusal to get tough with illegal immigration, the uproar on the right threatens the discipline and unity of the nation's governing party as it heads into a midterm election next fall, with Congress and a majority of the country's governorships at stake.
"I'm disappointed, depressed and demoralized," said William Kristol, an influential conservative and editor of the Weekly Standard.
"What does this say about the next three years of the Bush administration, leaving aside for a moment the future of the court? Surely this is a pick from weakness. Is the administration more broadly so weak? What are the prospects for a strong Bush second term? What are the prospects for holding solid GOP majorities in Congress in 2006 if conservatives are demoralized?"
David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, said that Bush let slip an opportunity to shift the court decisively to the right, a chance that conservatives long have awaited.
"This is the moment for which the conservative legal movement has been waiting for two decades ... " Frum said. Yet Bush passed over known, qualified contenders for a woman that Frum said he knew from White House days as "intelligent, honest, capable, loyal, discreet, dedicated"—but lacking the steel to stand for conservative principles on the high court.
Frum said he thought Bush shied from a bolder choice because he was weakened politically by public disappointment with his handling of Hurricane Katrina.
"Post-Katrina, the Bush administration feels politically vulnerable," Frum said in an online essay Monday for the National Review.
The White House political operation mobilized quickly to reassure conservatives.
Vice President Dick Cheney went on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, one of the most influential conservative forums. Limbaugh pressed Cheney on why the White House picked Miers when "her judicial philosophy is unknown" and that she seemed chosen "to appease the left."
Cheney denied that, said he knew Miers is a conservative, that her background would add useful diversity to the court, and that the rest of the country would look back "in 10 years" and know that was true.
"Why do we need to wait 10 years?" Limbaugh said. "There are people that he could have nominated that we would know about now. Is there a desire in the White House because of current poll numbers or this Katrina response that just doesn't want the fight with the Senate Democrats at this time?"
Cheney ended up saying simply: "You'll be proud of Harriet's record, Rush. Trust me."
As Cheney spoke, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman appealed to party loyalty.
"Before Ms. Miers was even announced, many Democrat groups said they would oppose her," Mehlman said in a note to supporters. "They are promising to throw every punch ... no matter what her qualifications may be. ... Harriet Miers needs your help."
Some conservative legal activists agreed.
Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, called Miers "an excellent choice."
Leonard Leo, a vice president of the Federalist Society, noted that Miers had worked, albeit unsuccessfully, to steer the American Bar Association away from its support of abortion rights.
But for every conservative who spoke out in support, another rose to criticize.
"The president's nomination of Miers is a betrayal of the conservative, pro-family voters whose support put Bush in the White House in both the 2000 and 2004 elections," said Eugene Delgaudio, the president of a conservative group called Public Advocate.
Added Erick-Woods Erickson, a Georgia-based Republican blogger:
"George W. Bush was the ultimate stealth nominee. He has acted like a true-blue conservative, talking the talk and walking the tax-cut walk. But he has expanded government, spent the future, and now nominated she who has the potential to be a female Souter."
For more of Erickson's and other conservative blogs, www.redstate.org and www.powerlineblog.com.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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