The conservative screamers who shot down Miers can argue that they were fighting only for a “qualified” nominee, though it is plain that many of them wanted more – a guarantee that Miers would do their bidding and overrule Roe v. Wade . But whatever the rationale, the fact is that they short-circuited the confirmation process by raising hell with Bush. Certainly there can be no greater sin in a sizable bloc of sitting senators using long-standing Senate rules to stymie a nomination than a cabal of outsiders – a lynching squad of right-wing journalists, self-sanctified religious and moral organizations, and other frustrated power-brokers – rolling over the president they all ostensibly support.
But the message that has been sent is that this president is surprisingly easy to roll. He came out of his election victory proclaiming that Social Security reform was his No. 1 priority. For six months he stumped the country trying to sell his ideas – and failed. In retrospect, even Republicans said he misjudged the temper of the public by emphasizing privatization over solvency as the chief goal. He tried to isolate senior citizens from the battle, only to see them in the front lines. And he managed to unite the Democrats in opposition – something their own leaders rarely can manage.
Next came Hurricane Katrina, which showed the whole country a case study in mismanagement by a White House supposedly under Harvard Business School-level discipline. Bush’s first decision post-Katrina was to suspend the law guaranteeing prevailing wages for reconstruction work. But that decision too was quickly reversed, in the face of pressure from Democrats, moderate Republicans and even the supposedly enfeebled labor movement.
And then came the Miers fiasco, with the dagger held by the president’s staunchest allies. It made a shambles of any consistent claim that Bush employs serious principles in picking judges. A system that veers from an accomplished and studiously nonideological John Roberts to a marginally credentialed and often confused-sounding Harriet Miers to an intellectual and experienced Samuel Alito with pronounced ideological views is no system at all.
Politically, the president probably had no choice but to reach back for his conservative base in making the Alito nomination. At his current levels of support, he has no place else to go. But the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll contains a clear warning. Self-described conservatives made up only 31 percent of the electorate. Moderates numbered 44 percent. And the moderates were nearly exact opposites of the conservatives in their views toward Bush, disapproving of his job performance by a 38 to 61 percent margin, while conservatives approved 61 to 39.
The risks of a Supreme Court showdown fight are at least as great for Bush as for the Democrats.