Bush tried to avoid a fight, but he failed

November 04, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- The reaction of conservatives to President Bush's nomination of federal appeals Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court has been so gleeful that friends and foes alike wonder why Mr. Bush did not choose him, rather than White House counsel Harriet Miers, in the first place. After all, here's a man who, like the easily confirmed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., has scholarly credentials, long judicial experience and an agreeable manner.

Some of the more paranoid voices I have heard wonder whether Ms. Miers might simply have been an innocent pawn in an evil, mean-spirited plot; she might have been set up to fail, poor darling, just so the president could shrug, smile and say, "Well, we tried," before nominating the conservative white guy that he wanted all along. Leave it to the paranoids to make simple answers more complicated than they need be.

No, the real answer is quite obvious, simple and straightforward. Mr. Bush actually believed his warm-and-fuzzy campaign promises to be "a uniter, not a divider." He told himself so, no matter how much his supporters, surrogates and subordinates trashed the reputations of anyone who disagreed with him.

With that in mind, I think Mr. Bush picked Ms. Miers first because Judge Alito - and his similarly seasoned conservative deep-thinkers with their long paper trails - offers too much of what Mr. Bush does not want. Among them, Judge Alito brings to the table:

A likely confirmation fight with Senate Democrats.

No past ties to Mr. Bush, who likes to promote from within.

His gender.

With Mr. Bush's approval ratings sagging, particularly with moderates and minorities, the president wanted a woman to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by departing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Ms. Miers' conservative critics didn't want a charming moderate. They wanted an intellectually powerful and persuasive conservative in the model of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, as Mr. Bush had promised on the campaign trail in 2000.

One wonders whether Mr. Bush knew much about the voting records of Justices Scalia and Thomas when he made that promise.

After all, despite Mr. Bush's conservative leanings, he was remarkably tone deaf to the passions of conservative leaders and opinion writers for whom a conservative Supreme Court has been a political Holy Grail since the Roe v. Wade ruling legalized abortions in 1973.

If Mr. Bush did not spend much time thinking about the Supreme Court, it could be that he was distracted by other concerns, or maybe the very topic of judicial appointments fails to ring his chimes. Policy debates send this president to snoozeland, according to those who have worked with him over the years. He'd probably rather clear brush on his ranch.

He espouses a desire for justices who "won't legislate from the bench," which is political code for opposition to Roe, and that seems to be about all the judicial philosophy he wants to know.

But in his desire to avoid a confirmation fight and possible filibuster, he underestimated how much his fellow partisans were itching for a fight.

Conservatives don't meet in a room somewhere in a true right-wing conspiracy any more than liberals and progressives do. But in the anti-Miers backlash by conservatives, they proved themselves to be a strong movement - like-minded enough to unleash columns, commentaries and blogs within days that cooled Ms. Miers' support in the Senate like rain on a prairie fire.

After Ms. Miers, all seems to be forgiven on the right, at least in public. Movement conservatives rhapsodize about Mr. Bush's ability to come back stronger than ever. "This was not a conservative crackup," pundit Rush Limbaugh bellowed. "It was a crackdown."

And the televised sight of Judge Alito fending off Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and other Democrats should reunite the conservative base even more, while doing much the same to liberals. The fight Mr. Bush wanted to avoid now appears to be inevitable.

He consulted with his party's right wing, but he didn't talk to the right right-wingers.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail address is cptime@aol.com.

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