Was it impotence or omnipotence?

I've been wondering which variety of delusional thinking led George W. Bush to choose poor Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. It must have been one or the other, it seems to me, and neither is particularly good news.

I have nothing against Miers, though I probably will once she dons those black robes and starts voting on cases I care about. Over the years, the president has had more than enough time to peer deeply into her heart, or her soul, or wherever it is he looks to discern what the person under scrutiny thinks about Roe v. Wade. I'm betting that she's no David Souter -- that she quickly signs up with the Scalia-Thomas fringe, even if she lacks Antonin Scalia's right-wing erudition or Clarence Thomas's persecution complex. They'll be like a middle-aged Mod Squad, a trio of groovy avengers fighting for truth, justice and the American Way circa 1805.

But that's only what the president has been promising, and at least Miers hasn't spent her whole adult life in the judicial monastery, illuminating manuscripts by candlelight. One reason for Sandra Day O'Connor's effectiveness -- she basically hijacked Rehnquist's court -- is that she's such a skilled politician. Miers is no O'Connor, but she did serve a term on the Dallas City Council, and maybe she has some passing familiarity with the real world.

Still, the smoke continues to puff from conservatives' ears. As they keep reminding us, Miers wasn't on anybody's short list, or even anybody's long list, for the Supreme Court. Her name occurred only to the president, her qualifications were evident only to the president, her loyalty is only to the president.

Any of a dozen other names would have brought joy to the hearts of his conservative supporters. So why did he pick Miers? Was he feeling impotent or omnipotent?

The impotence theory is easy to understand, since it's obvious that things haven't exactly been going according to plan, to the extent this administration has a plan. Iraq is still a bloody mess. Hurricane Katrina did structural damage to the administration's main pillar of public support, the illusion that whatever you thought of this crowd, it was cold-eyed and competent in a crisis. All the ethics investigations -- of Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby -- threaten the White House with a dim future: three lame-duck years in a bunker, pinned down by hostile fire.

Given all that, it makes sense that the president might decide this wasn't the best moment to send the Senate a well-known, red-meat Originalist. He might conclude this isn't the time for an all-out confirmation battle that could stiffen the spines of Democrats and weaken the nerve of Republicans who keep an eye on the opinion polls.

But if that impotence scenario is correct, then obviously the president just doesn't understand the need to dispel the odor of rampant cronyism -- the whole "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" thing. It's hard for me to believe that after the Katrina debacle, with the ethics controversies beginning to swirl like a newly formed tropical depression, the president would think that he could nominate a woman whose only unchallenged qualification to sit on the highest court in the land is her blind loyalty to Bush.

That leads me to the omnipotence scenario: that the president knew he would create a firestorm with the Miers nomination and decided to go ahead anyway. He knew Miers, knew she would be a reliable conservative vote on the court, knew that some of his allies might resent having to vote to confirm the Unknown Justice and decided to name her anyway because he's the president, and he can do anything he wants.

The Miers episode will probably have no real impact on the future of American jurisprudence. While there's nothing in her record to suggest she'll be a giant on the court, there's also nothing in her record to suggest that she'll be a rank embarrassment. I'm more worried that the president is feeling -- wrongly in both cases -- that he's either powerless or all-powerful.

If I had to choose, I'd rather have this president feeling tentative than have him feeling arrogant. But it's a close call, given that he'll be in the White House another three years and change. The country and the world face enormous challenges, and while I want Bush to stop driving us up blind alleys and over cliffs, it's way too early for the wheels to fall off entirely.

The writer will answer questions at 2 p.m. today on washingtonpost.com.

His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.