WASHINGTON—President Bush moved Monday to revive his moribund presidency while shifting the political landscape for the 2006 and 2008 elections.
His selection of Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court has the potential to push the court to the right for years to come, which would satisfy a decades-long dream of conservatives and likely write a large chapter in Bush's legacy.
That prospect paid immediate political dividends by energizing conservatives, who had angrily denounced Bush's prior selection of Harriet Miers as a betrayal. Their rebellion contributed to his political decline, and continued infighting made it almost impossible for him to regain his footing.
But the Alito pick also roused liberals, who had all but slept through the Miers nomination. Senate Democrats might try to block Alito's nomination, which could provoke a knockdown fight in the Senate.
If opponents win, they would force a severely weakened Bush to make a third pick. Should they lose, Alito would take his seat and the Bush court could start ruling on issues such as abortion rights before the next election.
Either way, Alito's nomination has rekindled Bush's relationship with conservatives, who carried him to victory in 2000 and 2004 and who are key to his Republican Party in 2006. Passion among conservatives and liberals is pivotal in a midterm election, when voting drops and turning out the party rank and file is key to victory.
The fight over Alito's nomination likely will be kicked off by an ad barrage from interest groups on both sides. Conservative groups such as Progress for America and the Judicial Confirmation Network, for example, are likely to air ads backing Alito. Liberal groups such as People for the American Way are likely to advertise against Alito.
That Bush moved so quickly after Miers' withdrawal Thursday underscored how much Bush needed to settle the fight with his political base. With a top White House aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, indicted Friday, the U.S. military death toll in Iraq passing 2,000, fuel prices still high and polls showing independents leaning against him, Bush could ill afford any erosion of support from conservatives.
"It resurrects his relationship with his base—that's the first critical step toward rehabilitation," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University in California. "It puts him in a good position. ... And it advances us to the midterm elections."
If Alito is confirmed, Gerston said liberals and conservatives will have clearer cases to take to voters, for the Supreme Court could be handing down more conservative rulings. For example, it could ban late-term "partial-birth" abortions or uphold laws requiring minors to get parents' permission before abortions.
That would please social conservatives, but it also "will give the Democrats an opportunity to say, `See, if you don't like this, get us back in,'" Gerston said.
Social conservatives sounded eager for a fight.
"We also welcome the debate over conservative values," said the Rev. Frank Pavone, the national director of anti-abortion group Priests for Life and a spiritual adviser to the family of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who died after her feeding tube was removed.
"The nation is in a culture war, and there's no need to hide that fact. Some senators will oppose any change on the court that would threaten so-called abortion rights. But the American people are already deciding that their Constitution does not permit dismembering children. It is inevitable that the court will catch up," Pavone said.
Polls show majority support for abortion rights with limits, so the coming fight may not be so good for Republicans.
While a Senate fight over abortion could energize conservatives and liberals, court rulings could rouse independents who support abortion rights.
"It can take a while for that to play out," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. "It's possible that if Alito is confirmed, it will energize the base and help Bush in the midterms. But it then might cut differently by 2008."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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