Seeking to quell a revolt within his own party, President Bush offered a robust defense of his new Supreme Court nominee as well as his own conservative credentials yesterday in the face of Republican complaints that he has drifted from his ideological moorings in recent weeks.
A day after tapping White House counsel Harriet Miers for associate justice, Bush appeared in the Rose Garden to reject charges of cronyism, criticism of her scant constitutional background and suspicion of her judicial philosophy. He presented her as the most qualified candidate in the country and called on the Senate to confirm her by Thanksgiving. Their friendship, he added, should be seen as a plus, not a minus.
"I picked the best person I could find," Bush said at his first full-fledged White House news conference since May. "People know we're close. But you got to understand, because of our closeness, I know the character of the person. It's one thing to say a person can read the law -- and that's important -- and understand the law. But what also matters . . . is the intangibles. To me, a person's strength of character counts a lot."
The expansive, 55-minute question-and-answer session on a warm autumn day came at a time when Bush has been struggling to regain traction after bottoming out in opinion-poll approval ratings. The wide range of issues that he addressed added up to a compendium of his troubles lately, as he again took responsibility for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, deflected questions on the CIA leak investigation, insisted the United States is making progress in Iraq and acknowledged that his Social Security plan is going nowhere in Congress for now.
At the root of many of the issues was the essential question of where his presidency is headed, nearly a year after his reelection. Instead of picking a full-throated antiabortion conservative to replace the retiring centrist Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as supporters wanted, Bush named a confidante whose views are largely unknown to everyone except him. With his conservative domestic agenda essentially tabled, he has embraced a massive spending program to restore New Orleans and the Gulf Coast that dwarfs the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.
Bush dismissed suggestions that he has lost his way or his influence. "Am I still a conservative?" he said at one point, repeating a reporter's question. "Proudly so. Proudly so." Asked if he still has political capital, as he boasted after last year's election, he answered: "Plenty. Plenty."
Yet he stopped short of issuing the sort of clear call for the end of legalized abortion that his political base hopes will result from his Supreme Court nominations. He described himself as "a pro-life president" but refused to say whether he wants the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. "I'm not going to interject that kind of issue in the midst of these hearings," he said, referring to Miers's confirmation process.
As Bush defended his choice, Miers was on Capitol Hill meeting with senators. The White House and the Republican National Committee reached out to conservatives all day through a series of conference calls and e-mail messages to reassure skeptics that she is one of them.
One such skeptic is Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a Judiciary Committee member and prospective 2008 presidential candidate. In a carefully worded statement, he said he wants to know much more about Miers's views on various issues. "I am not yet confident that Ms. Miers has a proven track record and I look forward to having these questions answered," he said.
Speaking separately to an Associated Press reporter, Brownback added: "There's precious little to go on and a deep concern that this would be a Souter-type candidate," he said, referring to Justice David H. Souter, who was little known when nominated in 1990 and turned out to be more liberal than Republican supporters expected.
"The circumstances seem to be very similar," Brownback said. "Not much track record, people vouching for her, yet indications of a different thought pattern earlier in life."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he also has concerns about the lack of a paper trail -- leaving senators unsure about her views on a range of issues, including business law and social concerns. "I will need to know more about her," he said. But he said he was "very satisfied" with Miers's answers during their meeting and added: "I would assume she is very conservative."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) sought to dispel doubts about Miers's political leanings and vowed to support her confirmation. "A lot of my fellow conservatives are concerned, but they don't know her as I do," said Hatch, who had extensive dealings with Miers when he was Judiciary Committee chairman.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also sounded upbeat. "I am enthusiastic about this nomination," he said after meeting with Miers. "I know the president believes in Ms. Miers strongly, and I value his judgment."
Miers already is benefiting from one prominent Democratic voice. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) had privately suggested to Bush that he consider her and reiterated his enthusiasm during a Senate floor speech yesterday. "I will say that I am very impressed by what I know about Harriet Miers," he said.
But he said his positive assessment to Bush did not guarantee his vote: "I am grateful that the president took account of my views. But let me make clear that I have not endorsed this nomination."
Other Democrats who have bristled at Reid's collaborative approach signaled that they wanted to subject Miers's record to tough scrutiny and called for the White House to release documents related to her service over the past five years. Bush made it clear he had no intention of handing over such papers, deeming it an infringement of executive privilege.
Bush's defense of Miers in the Rose Garden at times echoed memorable moments during his father's presidency. When George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, liberals ridiculed him for asserting that Thomas was the most qualified candidate. The current president did not shy away from making a similar assertion when asked if Miers, out of all the people in the country, is "the most qualified" choice.
"Yes," he answered. "Otherwise I wouldn't have put her on."
And just as Thomas told the Senate that he never voiced a position on Roe even privately, Bush said he never talked about the topic with Miers. "Not to my recollection have I ever sat down with her" to talk about abortion, he said.
But Bush seemed to be taking lessons from his father's other Supreme Court nomination, that of Souter, the "stealth candidate" to whom many conservatives were comparing Miers yesterday. The president laughed off a question about whether he, too, thinks the nomination of Souter was a mistake.
"You're trying to get me in trouble with my father," he said. "Call him." (The former president's office had no comment.)
But Bush said he could vouch that Miers will not move to the left over time, an implicit reference to Souter. "I don't want to put somebody on the bench who is this way today and changes," he said. "That's not what I'm interested in. I'm interested in finding somebody who shares my philosophy today and will have that same philosophy 20 years from now."
On another topic worrying conservatives, Bush promised to seek spending cuts to offset some of the Katrina recovery program and targeted entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The president proposed $69 billion in savings over five years from those programs in his budget earlier this year, but Congress accepted just $35 billion in cuts. Bush called on lawmakers to return to his original plan. "The heart of America is big enough to be generous and responsible at the same time," he said.
Bush pitched for other priorities, including renewal of the USA Patriot Act, which empowers government agencies in pursuing suspected terrorists, and legislation to encourage construction of oil refineries in response to high gasoline prices. He said he is looking for a new Federal Reserve chairman who would be "an independent person from politics" and he said he is "sure the Congress will look" into whether Rafael Palmeiro of the Baltimore Orioles lied under oath about steroid use.
Still, Bush agreed that his proposal to restructure Social Security, once the signature initiative of his second term, has gone nowhere. "There seems to be a diminished appetite in the short term," he said, "but I'm going to remind people that there is a long-term issue that we must solve."