Selection to test Bush at precarious moment

Transition in the Supreme Court

News Analysis

September 05, 2005|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Bush will be under considerable pressure to name a woman or a minority to the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, activists and analysts said yesterday.

The selection of a new justice is both a risk and an opportunity for Bush, who was struggling with one of the stiffest tests of his presidency -- the unprecedented human and economic toll from Hurricane Katrina and the government's seeming inability to cope with the disaster -- when he learned that Rehnquist had died.

"It's almost like getting two 9/11's on top of each other -- two external jolts to his presidency that change the equation greatly," said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University political scientist.

Bush's response to these twin challenges "will be a test of whether, beneath his rough, straight-talking persona, is a political sophisticate -- someone who can pull something positive and unifying out of disaster," he said.

Sagging strength

Bush's poll ratings plunged during a monthlong vacation at his Texas ranch, as casualties mounted in Iraq and gasoline prices rose nationwide. His job-approval numbers could drop further this week, because of the administration's slow-off-the-mark response to Katrina and the sharpest jump in gasoline prices in memory.

The problems caused by Katrina could narrow Bush's options, said Greenstein, who remarked that Bush would be "crazy" and "self-destructive" to choose a conservative hard-liner who would spark a bitter confirmation battle.

But selecting a more moderate jurist could pose problems of a different sort: a revolt from conservatives in his own party, who are eager for Bush to move the court further to the right.

Privately, some conservative activists have expressed doubts about whether Judge John G. Roberts Jr. is sufficiently conservative, particularly after reports surfaced last month about his pro bono efforts on behalf of gay-rights proponents in what became a landmark gay-rights case.

If Bush were to nominate his close friend, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, as the first Hispanic justice, for example, the reaction from conservatives would be sharply negative, said Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist who is close to the White House.

"I don't know whether it's fair or unfair, but I can tell you the [conservative] movement across the board, even the economic conservatives, have trouble with" Gonzales, said Weyrich. During the 1990s, Gonzales, a Bush-appointed Texas Supreme Court justice, was regarded as relatively moderate on abortion and other issues.

"Boy," said Weyrich, "Bush has troubles enough without having his right flank on his neck."

Like several other activists interviewed yesterday, Weyrich said he would be surprised if Bush nominated another white male to fill the latest court vacancy.

Among the reasons: his failure to pick a woman or minority when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female justice, announced her retirement this summer.

In the days before Bush announced his court pick, first lady Laura Bush told an interviewer she would "really like for him to name another woman." After Roberts was selected, O'Connor was among those who expressed disappointment that Bush did not choose a female nominee.

The fact that Bush surprised many in choosing Roberts is the reason some predict that he will confound expectations again.

"People have such short-term memories," said Wendy E. Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network, which is attempting to mobilize grassroots support for the Roberts nomination in key states. Bush's first Supreme Court pick proves that "he doesn't care as much about these temporary political or demographic or PR considerations."

Things have changed

Much has changed though, for Bush and the country, in the seven weeks since Roberts was nominated, particularly in the seven days since Katrina tore apart the Gulf Coast. Exactly what the prevailing human, economic and political conditions will be, along the coast and in the rest of the country, when Bush announces a replacement for Rehnquist, is beyond anyone's ability to predict.

Bush's actions in recent days reflect the urgency he feels in trying to do everything he can to convert a national disaster into something positive for the country, and presumably for himself.

Yesterday morning, Bush once again seized on events to try to refurbish his reputation as a leader, something he has tried to do every day since cutting his vacation short last week.

In the space of one hour, he addressed the nation about filling Rehnquist's seat and visited the American Red Cross headquarters here to thank workers at their operations center.

Today, he'll return to Louisiana and Mississippi, instead of marking Labor Day as he had once been scheduled to do, at a labor union training facility in Piney Point, Md.

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