Bush's unpleasant surprise

Robert Novak
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Posted: Oct 06, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Two questions were asked in conservative circles Monday when it was learned President Bush had nominated his lawyer, Harriet Miers, for the Supreme Court. Question No. 1: "Is this what we fought for?" Question No. 2: "What was he thinking?"

 The conservative Republican base had tolerated George W. Bush's leftward lunges on education spending and prescription drug subsidies to re-elect him so that he could fill the Supreme Court with conservatives and send it rightward. But the White House counsel hardly looked like what they had expected.

 Nothing could have more quickly deflated Republican spirits. The antidote to the Iraq-Katrina malaise was the spectacular confirmation performance by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and Republicans eagerly awaited Act Two: confirmation of a successor to social liberal Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. This was one issue where the wind was at Bush's back, not in his face. But he robbed his legions of spirit with the Miers nomination.

 Miers hardly seems the true believer the Republican base was anticipating when the president's agents spread the word last week that his choice would please conservatives. In 1988, she was contributing to Al Gore's presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. She is listed as chairman of a 1998 American Bar Association committee that recommended legalization of gay adoptions and establishment of an International Criminal Court.

 Presidential adviser Karl Rove, recognizing the peril here, was on the phone Monday morning assuring conservatives of Miers's intrepidity. The line from the White House was that Miers should not be compared with Justice David Souter, who was named to the court 15 years ago by the president's father and immediately turned left. While Souter was a stranger from New Hampshire to the elder Bush, it is claimed no president ever has known a court nominee as well as the younger Bush knows his fellow Texan. Skeptics are assured she is sound on abortion and other social issues.

 Assuming those assurances are well founded, Miers's qualifications for the high court are still questioned. Members of Congress describe Miers as a nice person but hardly a constitutional scholar. Indeed, she might trip over questions that Roberts handled so deftly. People who have tried to engage her in serious conversation find her politely dull.

 In singing Miers's praises, Bush agents contend her every thought is of the president's best interests, not her own. That may be a desirable profile for a White House counsel, but it hardly commends a Supreme Court justice who will be around long after George W. Bush is gone. By naming his longtime attorney, Bush risks the charge of cronyism. After the Michael Brown fiasco at FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), Harriet Miers might seem the last person he would name to the Supreme Court.

 Two weeks ago, Bush was seriously considering another Texas woman he likes and knows well. The nomination of Federal Circuit Judge Priscilla Owen would have been highly regarded in the conservative community. Owen was confirmed for the appellate bench only after the compromise forged by the Group of Fourteen, and Republican senators advised the White House they did not want to fight for her again so soon. But there is no rule that O'Connor must be replaced by a Texas woman who is the president's pal. Many well-qualified conservative men and women were passed over to name Miers.

 The question recurs: "What was he thinking?" Bushologists figure the president was irked by repetitive demands that he satisfy the base with his Supreme Court appointments. He also was irked by the conservative veto of his Texas friend and Miers's predecessor at the White House, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. So, Bush showed the critics by naming another close aide lacking Gonzales's track record to draw the ire of the party's right wing.

 Immensely enjoying himself was Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who let it be known to colleagues that he recommended Miers to the president. With Miers at his side, Reid praised her a little for contributing to Al Gore and a lot for being a "trial lawyer" -- no encomium in the GOP. With friends like Reid, Harriet Miers hardly needs enemies.