Political Capital Running on Low

By Terry M. Neal
Friday, October 7, 2005; 8:51 AM

The Harriet Miers nomination marks one of those rare instances in Washington where the president sees his allies on the right becoming critics while critics on the left have gone mostly silent. President Bush, meanwhile, is left somewhere in the middle trying to use whatever political capital he has left to avoid the embarrassment of rejection.

Yet, political capital is tricky -- as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, it's hard to define, "but I know it when I see it."

Bush apparently thought Miers's lack of a published record would make it easier to push her nomination through. But the president is not dealing from a position of strength with this nomination. The "trust me" approach that has been successful in the past may be more difficult this time around, and indications are that many in Bush's party are beginning to question his judgment and management capabilities.

"Let me make this clear: I didn't want a fight," wrote conservative columnist and activist Maggie Gallagher. "What I wanted from President Bush was a nominee about whom, win or lose, we could all be proud. Instead, turning to His Girl Harriet, President Bush for once thought small. And that means, on this one President Bush is already a loser."

And with reliable conservatives openly rebelling against the nomination of Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court, it's becoming clear that the president has lost much of that political capital that was so handy one year ago. Conservative columnist George Will wrote in The Washington Post that "it is not important that she be confirmed. Second, it might be very important that she not be."

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former majority leader, said Wednesday: "I don't just automatically salute or take a deep bow anytime a nominee is sent up, I have to find out who these people are, and right now, I'm not satisfied with what I know."

The issue is not Miers's qualifications, really, but her judicial philosophy, which is code for: Where does she stand on abortion, gay rights, civil rights, affirmative action, voting rights and other hot-button social issues?

But mostly, it's about abortion -- for politicians on both sides of the fence.

Listen to what Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), one of the Senate's senior Republicans, had to say in defending the Miers selection yesterday: "A lot of my fellow conservatives are concerned, but they don't know her as I do. She's going to basically do what the president thinks she should, and that is be a strict constructionist."

Strict constructionist. By this, Hatch means someone who will not read into the Constitution rights that are not specifically enumerated.

Bush used similar terms at his news conference on Tuesday. "I know her character," the president said. "She's a woman of principle and deep conviction. She shares my philosophy that judges should strictly interpret the laws and the Constitution of the United States, and not legislate from the bench."

Despite their criticism of Democrats for trying to make abortion rather than judicial philosophy the issue during the Roberts nomination hearings, some conservatives reveal that they do, indeed, have a litmus test on abortion. And today, Bush, needs help reassuring his base that he's tending to its needs.

It was never quite clear what President Bush meant when he said he was going to be expending the "political capital" he earned in his reelection last year. Bush won the electoral vote by a narrow margin, and his advantage in the popular vote was the narrowest of any reelected president in American history.

A Republican strategist involved in the front lines of the battle for the Miers nomination, who asked to not be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said the White House plans to regain the upper hand by focusing on the nominee's conversion to evangelical Christianity.

"Conservatives love a fight with liberals," the strategist said. "And one of the things liberals are scared to death of is organized religion. And Harriet Miers is a born-again Christian. When liberal groups and others begin to read about her affirming the Texas sodomy law, contributing to pro-life groups and her religious faith, they're going to go crazy. It's already happening now."

In other words, for the president to regain his political capital, he'll recast the debate as a traditional one between left and right. But it will work only if he can get his own party to play along.

Comments can be be sent to Terry Neal at commentsforneal@washingtonpost.com.

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