Quick Thoughts on a Failed Nomination

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, October 27, 2005; 12:39 PM

A few immediate thoughts come to mind regarding the withdrawal of Harriet Miers's Supreme Court nomination:

No Fingerprints

For a few days now, political insiders in Washington have been speculating that the Miers nomination would be pulled. But there were few ways for a White House that prides itself on ignoring criticism and pushing ahead at all costs to do that without losing face. Today, the White House chose the best option available.

While it is still unclear whether Miers was pressured by administration officials or perhaps even President Bush himself, it looks better for the president if she requests the withdrawal of her nomination. And casting the withdrawal as a fight over executive privilege, as Miers and the White House did today, is the administration's way of making the matter one of high principle rather than political cowardice.

No Backlash

The Miers nomination failed ultimately because she had no real base of support. In nominating his long-time friend, the president gambled that her lack of a paper trail would focus the debate on her qualifications, rather than her views on hot-button issues such as abortion.

The lack of a paper trail did amplify the focus on her qualifications, but conservatives and liberals alike agreed they were underwhelming. The conventional wisdom that all conservatives cared about was how she would vote on abortion and other social issues was always overly simplistic. Many believed she would vote the way they wanted her to. But what they wanted was a powerful intellectual force who would help shape the court for decades to come.

The left, meanwhile, was happy to sit this one out. With Miers's views on an array of subjects unknown, or seemingly contradictory, it wasn't easy to wage a PR war for her defeat. With conservative groups taking the lead in opposing her, neither Republican nor Democratic senators had to fear a backlash by opposing her nomination.

Losing the Base?

"Trust me" no longer works for President Bush. While polls show that his approval ratings are near all-time lows, the Miers saga showed that not even his base was willing to trust his judgment. Conservatives believe they have been burned too many times, most recently by his father's nomination of David Souter to the Supreme Court. So the president had no reservoir of good will in the first place when it came to Miers.

With self-described moderates joining liberals in opposition to his presidency, all Bush has now is his conservative base. Because moderates and liberals were, at most, ambivalent about the Miers nomination, triangulation was not an option. In other words, Bush could not use the Miers nomination to appeal to the middle, which had no clue who Miers was. When the base abandoned the first President Bush (mostly over his breaking his "no new taxes" promise), his presidency was for all practical purposes over. This president doesn't have to worry about being reelected, but he still has an ambitious agenda to pursue --including making his tax cuts permanent and overhauling Social Security -- none of which can be accomplished without at least the support of his base.

Tension is high over runaway federal spending in particular, caused not just by the explosion of defense and homeland security spending, but by vast expansion of Medicare, education and other social spending. The federal government has expanded twice as fast on an annualized basis than it did under the Clinton administration. At the same time, the president's first-term vow to seek a constitutional amendment against gay marriage has gone nowhere. The Miers nomination threatened to be the proverbial straw. Her withdrawal allows the president to get back on track by nominating someone who will, like John Roberts, thrill conservatives and reverse some of the anxiety that exists on the right now.

Arming the Left

What some see as the inevitable nomination of a staunch conservative provides an opening for the left, which is eager for a battle -- even one they are likely to lose. The battle will help set the tone for next year's midterm elections and the 2008 presidential election, with the left hoping to convince the middle that the GOP takeover of Washington has moved the country dangerously to the right, typified by the argument that abortion rights are endangered by a Bush court.

The liberal People for the American Way, which vehemently opposed the Roberts nomination, did relatively little to oppose Miers. But it reacted with outrage -- as though it had actually supported the nomination -- upon news that she had withdrawn her name. "It's an astonishing spectacle," said PFAW president Ralph Neas in a statement this morning. "The unelected power-brokers of the far right have forced the withdrawal of President Bush's own Supreme Court nominee, before a confirmation hearing has even been held. President Bush's complete capitulation to the far-right interest groups is astounding. The ultra-right wing dominance of Republican Party politics is complete, and they have dealt a terrible blow to an already weakened president and his administration. Right-wingers are openly saying they elected Bush to put a battle-ready ultraconservative on the court to replace the moderate Sandra Day O'Connor, and they're demanding a new choice -- bipartisanship, moderation and mainstream Americans be damned."

The timing of today's announcement was curious in itself -- coming on a day, or a day before, a special prosecutor would announce whether a grand jury has indicted top White House officials in the Valerie Plame leak case. The good news for the president, if there is any in the Miers fiasco, is that it directs at least some of the media's attention away from that story. If the Miers spectacle is at most a one- or two-day story as the White House hopes, what better day to have it than this one?

© 2005 The Washington Post Company