Court choice lets Bush shift subject, say conservatives

`Real legacy' issue may draw focus off Iraq, Social Security

July 04, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The frenzied din of liberal and conservative groups clashing and senators chattering into microphones was audible over the airwaves this weekend, as both sides in the fight over the Supreme Court took their battle stations.

But if you listened closely, you might also have heard President Bush and Republican leaders breathe a sigh of relief.

For Bush, the prospect of spending the next couple of months advancing a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is like an icy drink on an oppressively hot day.

In the instant that Bush received word that there would be a court vacancy, he went from a president facing sagging poll numbers and a languid and unpredictable summer to one about to make one of the most important decisions of his presidency, highlighting issues that animate his base and absorb the attention of the nation.

Somewhat obscured from public view, at least for now, are bitter divisions over Bush's plans to overhaul Social Security and intensifying calls to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq - issues that some Republicans worried would dog the president and their party all summer long. Now, attention turns to Bush as he chooses a successor for O'Connor - a decision advisers say he won't make at least until he returns Friday from a trip to Europe - and to an expected partisan battle over the nominee's qualifications and philosophy.

`Bug bomb'

The Supreme Court fight is "a welcome change" for Bush, said Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation and one of several conservative leaders who keep in close touch with the White House.

Bush has "not gone as far with the Social Security battle as he would like. As far as Iraq is concerned, it is a very, very difficult war" with no end in sight, Weyrich said. The debate over the future of the court, by contrast, "is a battle that [Bush] welcomes, a battle that is winnable, and a battle which he understands well will determine his legacy."

Some Republicans have been saying privately for weeks that they would relish a lively Supreme Court debate to take the place of more nettlesome issues that threaten to divide their party, such as the Social Security proposal and Bush's immigration reform plan.

No matter how bitter those debates became, a senior Republican congressional aide mused recently, a Supreme Court vacancy would be the "bug bomb" that would wipe them away and unite the party behind Bush and his nominee. Now, Republicans have the subject change they were waiting for.

"Social what?" joked Christian Myers, executive director of the conservative group Progress for America. The remark was a nod to how quickly activists have forgotten about Bush's plan to revamp Social Security - conceived as the centerpiece of his domestic agenda - now that a Supreme Court slot is up for grabs.

Myers, whose organization has launched an $18 million campaign to back Bush's Supreme Court nominee, said the process of replacing O'Connor would "suffocate" everything else on Bush's agenda until its conclusion.

`Core values'

That plays to Bush's advantage, Myers said, because the president speaks often and effectively about his beliefs, including promoting a "culture of life" through limits on abortion and other measures.

"These are issues that can be a minefield for those who are not adept at maneuvering through them, but not for him," Myers said. Bush "doesn't back away from his core values, but at the same time, he is regarded as reasonable about these things."

Bush is positioning himself above the bitter fray created by the court vacancy, saying that he'll be "deliberate and thorough in this process."

Bush has said that the nation deserves and he will select a Supreme Court justice "that Americans can be proud of." He has called for "a dignified process of confirmation" in the Senate, "characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote."

At the same time, Bush is known for taking a position and sticking with it, no matter how heated the opposition.

"It may divide the country, but [Bush and his advisers] think it will probably benefit them to have that fight," said John C. Fortier of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "This is a fight that they're happy to have. These are the kinds of issues that they've run ads on."

The Supreme Court debate may afford Bush a respite from more difficult issues on his agenda, Fortier said, but it will be only temporary.

"His big agenda points are not on track right now, and this will get people's minds off that for a while, but it's not something that gets him back on a glide path," Fortier said. "In the long term, this doesn't really help him get back the momentum that faded in the first part of the year."

Many conservatives, however, argue that filling the Supreme Court vacancy is the most important task remaining for Bush, far outweighing other items on his agenda.

"Bush has recognized that his whole second term is judges," said Bruce Fein, a Justice Department official in the Reagan administration. "It's really the judges or nothing if he's going to leave a real legacy."

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