Despite the grumbles from the political extremes, President Bush's appointment of Judge David H. Souter to the Supreme Court has every indication of being a superb choice -- both substantively and politically.
What the country should care about is that the New Hampshire jurist -- by the unanimous testimony of those who know him -- brings a powerful, superbly trained legal intellect, disciplined work habits and genuine independence of judgment to the issues before the high court.
The political finesse of Bush's first Supreme Court appointment is underlined by the array of attractive options now open to him for those who may follow Souter. After naming an easily confirmable conservative who shares his own New England, Yankee, WASP heritage to replace Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Bush has put himself into a position where he can play tough but rewarding ethnic and ideological politics with subsequent Supreme Court choices.
The tip-off to the long-term strategy came in the eagerness with which White House officials aided reporters in learning the identities of those who they said were highest on the list of also-rans. They were, in the White House's publicized order of preference, Circuit Court Judges Edith H. Jones, a Texan and a woman; Clarence Thomas, a black; and Laurence H. Silberman, a Jew -- all clearly in the conservative camp.
A Democratic political consultant who looked at the list remarked, ''They've got perfect positioning if they want to pick our coalition apart.'' What he meant was that if Bush gets the opportunity to make additional Supreme Court appointments before 1992, he can force the Democrats either to acquiesce in moving the high court much farther to the right or to pay an exceptionally high political price by challenging nominees from important constituencies.
Talking about the politics of the court appointments in such bald terms may seem offensive, especially when Bush just has acknowledged a president's overriding obligation to give the greatest weight to the quality of the nominee for the high tribunal. But it would be fatuous to pretend that the political environment was not part of this choice. Bush did not want -- and could not afford -- a Robert Bork-like confrontation with the Democratic Senate at this moment.
The most important reason is that so much now hangs on the success of his budget summit with Congress. Bush has paid a significant political price by abandoning his ''no-new-taxes'' pledge in order to keep the Democrats negotiating. He needs to get a return on that investment -- a credible deficit-reduction agreement that will allow the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates and help revive a faltering economy.
The urgency of that agreement is underlined by the new Washington Post-ABC News poll's finding that nearly three out of five Americans think the economy is worsening, and more disapprove than approve Bush's leadership on economic issues. Collapse of the budget talks would damage Bush politically and quite possibly tip the economy into recession.
The negotiations are arduous already, and the venom of an ideological battle over a Supreme Court nomination would inevitably poison the chances of the budget summit accomplishing its objective.
The second reason Bush did not want a pitched battle now over a clearly ideological appointee is the imminence of the midterm elections. Republican chances of making gains in the Senate depend heavily on states such as Illinois and Rhode Island, where Republican women challengers are supporters of abortion rights, and Iowa, where the Democratic incumbent is trying to turn the election into a single-issue referendum on his challenger's anti-abortion views.
The last thing Bush wanted to do was to send up a Supreme Court nominee who would provoke a lengthy confirmation fight centered on the abortion issue.
None of these considerations would apply in 1991, should the opportunity for other appointments arise. Bush might well find it useful then to nail down his conservative base by making a more ideological court appointment, just as he courted the religious right in pre-election 1987 with a series of speeches and gestures.
A pitched battle in the Senate in 1991 would be a win-win proposition for Bush: Even if the liberals defeated his nominee, he would have made his point and could come back with a less controversial conservative.
That is why the three names are so intriguing. If Sandra Day O'Connor were to retire, Democrats opposing Judge Jones would find themselves opposing a female and a southerner on a court that has had only one woman and no one from Dixie in recent years.
If Thurgood Marshall were the retiree, how would Democrats feel about blocking Judge Thomas and making the court all-white again? And if Silberman were the choice, how many Democrats would be eager to oppose the first Jew on the court since Abe Fortas?
You can see why White House political operatives like the setup.