Since taking office, President Bush has heartened abortion opponents by signing a bill outlawing what they call "partial birth" abortions, curtailing federal funding for international organizations that offer abortion referrals and promoting what he calls a culture of life.
But after nominating White House counsel Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court last week, he was asked directly whether he wants Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court opinion guaranteeing a right to abortion, to be overturned. His response was less than direct. "You know, I'm not going to interject that kind of issue in the midst of these hearings," Bush said.
It is an answer that not only speaks to the powerful passions and treacherous politics surrounding abortion, but also reveals a type of pragmatism Bush has exhibited throughout his political career. There is little doubt that Bush, as he noted last week, is "proudly" conservative. Domestically, he has cut taxes, limited stem cell research and advanced bold proposals to replace cherished government social programs with an ownership society that offers recipients both greater risks and greater rewards while curbing taxpayer outlays.
But Bush also describes himself as a "compassionate conservative," an ambiguous term aimed at appealing to voters turned off by what some saw as a harsh, confrontational conservatism of the past. Bush has opposed some affirmative action programs, while endorsing others. He has sharply increased federal spending on education and on health care, even while advocating smaller government. He has spoken out against gay marriage, but expended little political capital in pushing a constitutional amendment to outlaw it. In the wake of the sluggish federal response to Hurricane Katrina, he has pledged to spend "whatever it takes" to rebuild the Gulf Coast, while attacking the rampant poverty in the region.
His political sensibilities at times have left him reluctant to take the lead into pitched ideological battles, particularly around social issues, frustrating his staunchest supporters.
"I think Bush is a solid conservative in terms of his views, but above all else he is a coalition builder," said John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life. "The president is keenly aware that he has many parts to his coalition, some of whom don't see eye to eye with religious conservatives."
When it comes to abortion, one of the nation's most explosive topics, he has walked a fine line, touting his antiabortion sentiments while carefully acknowledging the national consensus for abortion rights. "I know good people disagree on this issue, but surely we can agree on ways to value life by promoting adoption and parental notification," Bush said at the 2000 Republican National Convention.
Bush's caution around the volatile issue is well founded, as polls have consistently found support for fundamental abortion rights, even while the public backs some efforts to restrict access to the procedure.
"I can think of nothing that would galvanize and anger a wide segment of the American public more than overturning Roe v. Wade," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "I can't think of another issue that would generate as much intensity not only from the active left and feminists, but also from a lot of people in the middle."
In picking a successor to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a swing voter on the court, Bush had an opportunity to move the court decisively to the right, jeopardizing Roe as well as a host of issues from affirmative action to the power of the federal government to impose regulations on states. Bush had stoked conservative expectations by saying that he looked to the high court's most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, as models for his eventual nominees.
Still, Bush chose Miers, bypassing jurists whose conservative credentials are unquestioned and antiabortion opinions are well known. While Miers established a long record as a distinguished corporate lawyer and legal trailblazer in Texas before working for Bush in Texas and at the White House, she has no background as a judge or published constitutional thinker. Moreover, while she may prove to be a reliable conservative who will please social conservatives, her legal views on abortion and other issues are a mystery to the public.
The White House has dispatched surrogates to reassure mutinous conservatives who view Miers's selection as a shocking mistake. They have described her as a born-again Christian who will move the court to the right. Bush has vouched for his onetime personal attorney, repeatedly citing her conservative bona fides as well as her record as the first woman in Texas to head a major law firm and her efforts to help ex-offenders and to urge lawyers into doing more pro-bono work for the poor.
"Harriet Miers is an extraordinary nominee," he told reporters Friday. "I'm confident she's going to be a Supreme Court judge who will not legislate from the bench, and will strictly interpret the Constitution."
Few conservative skeptics are persuaded by the White House pitch. "They are asking us to have faith and to support the nominee. But on the other hand they are not giving us reason to do that other than saying 'trust the president,' " said Mark R. Levin, president of the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation.
Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist who has closely followed Bush's career, said that Bush's idea of a good Supreme Court justice may be more nuanced than many of his political supporters -- and opponents -- assume. While many social conservatives are motivated by a desire to end abortion or affirmative action, he said Bush may support those causes, without placing them at the top of his list of priorities.
"He was never a leader on controversial social issues," Buchanan said. "He has always been more concerned with centrist business positions."