Strong opposition to weak nominee

October 24, 2005|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- President Bush may be as confused about the controversy surrounding the nomination of Harriet Miers as I am. Sure, he nominated a crony. So what? He's been doing that for the past five years. Indeed, he started his presidency without enough of his own cronies to put in office, so he had to borrow some from his daddy. Since when did his supporters mind?

No, Ms. Miers is not the most qualified person the president could find. Neither was Clarence Thomas when Mr. Bush's father found him. But Dad used a similar phrase in presenting Justice Thomas 14 years ago, and conservatives parroted the line with a straight face.

While Justice Thomas, unlike Ms. Miers, had served briefly as a federal judge, he had never been celebrated as a paragon of profound intellect. He endeared himself to white conservatives as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he proved willing to condemn the very affirmative action policies that had helped him to succeed. But that was enough.

So why hasn't Ms. Miers' opposition to abortion been enough to win the enthusiasm of conservative Christians? Why hasn't James Dobson's endorsement whipped the religious right wing into a chorus of support?

Mr. Bush must have reasoned that his heretofore loyal constituency of ultra-conservative Christians knows he has no political capital left, what with a 39 percent approval rating, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. So he couldn't risk nominating a jurist with a trail of scholarly writings hostile to the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade. Nor could he expect confirmation of a judge who is so far to the right that he has to write his decisions with his left hand. Not only Democrats but also moderate Republicans would likely object to an obvious extremist.

No, the president needed a cipher.

He undoubtedly figured his base would fall in line behind Ms. Miers if he used the same signals and not-so-subtle cues he's used on everything from the invasion of Iraq to his interference in the case of Terri Schiavo. With rhetoric that frequently called attention to his bona fides as a born-again Christian, Mr. Bush was employing a code that communicated effectively to other born-agains without frightening moderate voters. In an October 2004 New York Times profile, writer Ron Suskind described the alliance between the president and his base of ultra-conservative churchgoers this way:

"George W. Bush and his team have constructed a high-performance electoral engine. The soul of this new machine is the support of millions of likely voters, who judge his worth based on intangibles - character, certainty, fortitude and godliness - rather than on what he says or does. The deeper the darkness, the brighter this filament of faith glows, a faith in the president and the just God who affirms him."

So when did that faith in Mr. Bush begin to fade? Even Mr. Dobson had to be coaxed back into line; Karl Rove called him to tell him that Ms. Miers shared the president's judicial philosophy and perhaps to remind him of Ms. Miers' conversion from Catholic to conservative evangelical.

In 1989, running for the Dallas City Council, Ms. Miers pledged to support a constitutional amendment banning abortions except when the mother's life is threatened. But even a copy of that pledge, made to a group called Texans United for Life, has not quelled the furor on the right.

It is less surprising that intellectual conservatives are furious with Mr. Bush. They fancy themselves men and women of gravitas, of enormous brain power, of Big Ideas. (And at least some of them are.) They wanted a jurist of impeccable scholarly credentials and unquestioned competence - a man or woman who would represent them well.

There is, however, one rather large contradiction that ought to be troubling those leading lights of conservative thought right about now: If competence is their standard, why did they vote for Mr. Bush?

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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