A Weakened President Faces New Risks

In nominating Miers, President Bush put personal loyalty ahead of the wishes of the political base he usually pleases.
In nominating Miers, President Bush put personal loyalty ahead of the wishes of the political base he usually pleases. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 28, 2005

President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers on Oct. 3 was made from a position of weakness by a White House beset by political problems and eager to avoid a fight over the Supreme Court. Twenty-four excruciating days later, the supposed safe choice crashed, exposing the president as even weaker than before.

Bush now has an opportunity to recover from one of the biggest political miscalculations of his term, the failure to anticipate the backlash Miers would cause with his own conservative base. But in repairing that breach, he risks a new confrontation with Democrats and further estrangement from the political center -- precisely the situation he hoped to avoid when he tapped his loyal and unassuming personal lawyer in the first place.

Few Republicans in Washington saw the timing of Miers's withdrawal as coincidental. With potential indictments of senior White House officials looming in the CIA leak case, the president could ill afford a sustained and increasingly raw rupture within the GOP coalition.

The Miers nomination was more than a humiliation for Bush, however. It was an episode that seemed wholly out of character with the president's style. No Republican president -- not even Ronald Reagan -- has catered to the right more methodically than Bush. But on a matter of first-order significance to many conservatives, the president let personal loyalty override what had been a central tenet of his political strategy.

Across Washington yesterday, there were all manner of explanations being offered: that special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's leak investigation had distracted top advisers such as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove; that growing insularity within the president's inner circle had skewed his judgment; that Bush had grown cocksure, blithely assuming conservatives would respect the choice because it came from him.

The uproar over Miers was distinctive in another way: The loudest opposition came from conservative intellectuals, not grass-roots activists. Bush's team managed at first to keep cultural and religious conservatives divided over Miers with aggressive lobbying of leading figures such as Focus on the Family's James C. Dobson, who endorsed Miers immediately. But they could not withstand the battering that came from opinion-shapers such as columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer, Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and former White House speechwriter David Frum. By the end, even Dobson announced he probably would have reversed course and opposed her.

Nor in the end could Bush stand up to the barrage of criticism coming from Capitol Hill, where the nominee's meetings with senators stirred unease about her prospects of surviving the grilling that was coming in confirmation hearings. Rarely has a nominee faced the kind of criticism that Miers heard from Republican leaders such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.).

This convergence of special factors in the Miers situation makes its long-term impact hard to predict. A number of Republicans said yesterday that, assuming Bush selects a new nominee widely judged to be well qualified, the damage may dissipate quickly. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) described Miers's withdrawal as "a speed bump" that will have no lasting significance. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said, "The sense was of disappointment, not of betrayal."

John J. Pitney Jr., a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said: "I think the base is eager to renew its alliance with Bush. Who else do they have? If they remain estranged from Bush, the advantage goes to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, and that prospect will bring them very rapidly back into Bush's camp." Pelosi, of California, is the Democratic leader of the House; Reid, of Nevada, is the party's Senate leader.

Others said Bush's decision to accept Miers's withdrawal before Fitzgerald announces his decision could prove to be an essential step in rallying his supporters for what may be even more turbulent times.

"It was the wisest course of action, both for himself and for Ms. Miers," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and strategist. "This opens the door for the president to turn around a run of bad luck and bad stories. Obviously, the special prosecutor will have something to say on that score, but a step in the right direction is a step in the right direction."

But the withdrawal of the Miers nomination may subtly alter the relationship between the president and conservatives, who have now prevailed over GOP leaders in two significant instances in the past two months. Conservatives beat Bush over the Miers nomination and House conservatives defeated their leadership over how much to cut spending to pay for the cleanup costs of Hurricane Katrina.

Some of those in the forefront of stopping Miers said yesterday Bush could see more resistance to his decisions. "There will be less deference to his [Bush's] judgment" in the future, Kristol said, adding that "there will be full support for Bush when he's conservative."

The next test will be Bush's selection of another Supreme Court nominee. If he selects someone to the right's liking, what happened the past few weeks may be judged as little more than a family quarrel.

What isn't clear is just what the right will demand in another nominee -- whether activists will tolerate someone with good qualifications and generally conservative instincts, or will insist on someone who has been with them in the trenches of the conservative legal movement. The latter would rally the right but also guarantee a fight with the Democrats. "His first priority is to get the base behind him, even if that produces a nominee that is really fought over in the Senate and possibly defeated," said Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) noted that, having endured a barrage of criticism about the war in Iraq, rising gasoline prices and the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina, Bush has bowed to his traditional allies by scuttling Miers's candidacy. But he challenged Bush not to move too far right in picking a new nominee. "He can yield to the political exigency of the time because he's embattled, or do the right thing for the country, the Senate, and most of all, the Supreme Court."

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist in Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, said the fact that much of the opposition to Miers came from Washington elites, not from conservatives around the country, meant Bush may be able to satisfy the bulk of his base without inflaming the Democrats.

"I think conservatives generally know that after watching Bush for five years that he's conservative," he said. "I don't think that's a problem. I don't think it means necessarily there has to be a fight picked with Democrats."

That strategy worked with the nomination this summer of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., but it failed badly with Miers. Now with the special prosecutor circling and conservative expectations rising, Bush's margin of error may be smaller than ever. The embattled president will need a fully energized base to survive potentially difficult days ahead and he now must decide just how far he has to go to restore harmony within the family.

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