Withdrawal is latest setback for White House


Supreme Court Nomination


Washington -- It was hard to ignore the comparison as President Bush toured hurricane-devastated South Florida yesterday, where millions were still without power.

Bush's administration has become, in some ways, its own crisis zone, with the president's power to influence events in Washington increasingly in doubt. His failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers, a close and devoted friend from Dallas, was only the latest blow.

Bush is famous for not backing down from tough fights. But, weakened politically, he may have had little choice.

Allies acknowledge that the sea of troubles surrounding and distracting the White House made it more difficult for Bush to go all-out on behalf of his choice of Miers.

"The more you are concerned with other things, the harder it is to have wars on other fronts," said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire Republican who was enlisted by the White House to promote the Miers nomination in the face of fierce conservative opposition.

"He doesn't back down in fights, but the fight has to be about ideology and the focus on changing the courts, and not about qualifications," said another Republican close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The withdrawal of Miers is another setback for Bush's presidency, less than one year after his triumphal re-election victory. A second-term president is a lame duck, barred by the 22nd Amendment from seeking another term and increasingly powerless over time.

But Bush is in serious danger of feeling those effects prematurely, making it difficult for him to deal with Congress and advance his initiatives at home and abroad. Already effectively dead: his plan to overhaul Social Security -- his boldest second-term agenda item -- which he aggressively pushed for months.

Bush's job approval ratings -- a measure that, historically, is closely linked to his party's future election chances -- are lower than those of any second-term president since Richard Nixon at a comparable stage.

More ominously, Bush's popularity, perhaps his greatest personal asset, has been significantly diminished. A national poll, completed last week by the Pew Research Center, found that for the first time since he became president, a majority of Americans hold an unfavorable opinion of Bush personally.

"There's no question that he is at the weakest point of his presidency," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. But "these numbers have been driven by events, and events can drive numbers the other way."

Among the events dragging Bush down: high energy prices, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, an unpopular war in Iraq and the cloud of suspicion hovering over Republicans in Washington with the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and a federal investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Events that might turn things around for Bush are somewhat harder to envision.

"He's going to need some luck in Iraq. He's going to need luck on the economy. And he's going to need a smoother decision-making process in the White House," said John J. Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political scientist.

Bush's problems may well deepen, at least in the short run. Today, a special counsel is expected to announce in Washington whether criminal charges have been brought in the CIA leak investigation and whether any senior Bush aides have been indicted.

Revelations, growing out of the leak investigation, about the role that top Bush aides and Vice President Dick Cheney played in attacking a prominent critic of Bush's Iraq policy have inflicted damage on the administration's credibility. Roughly four out of five Americans said they believe that Bush administration officials did something illegal or unethical in leaking the identity of a CIA officer, according to a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll this week.

Meanwhile, the fight over the Miers nomination brought divisions within the Republican Party out into the open. Those fault lines had been expected to widen as the fight to succeed Bush accelerates, though presumably not until after next year's elections.

Instead, Bush's ability to command the unquestioned loyalty of fellow Republicans has been loosened, at least temporarily.

"This is not a one-person party, and this issue is extremely important," said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who would like to become the favorite of hard-line social and religious conservatives in the 2008 Republican presidential contest.

For Bush, the Miers debacle was a stinging, and personally embarrassing, setback. He publicly and privately vouched for the nominee, who had been his lawyer before joining the White House staff.

But his arguments were rejected by some of his staunchest supporters, and Bush pulled the nomination before she had a chance to testify at confirmation hearings.

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