Bush's judicial test

Robert Novak
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Posted: Oct 31, 2005 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lindsey Graham, who had held his nose and loyally backed Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, last week quickly advocated a new candidate for President Bush to consider: Federal Appellate Judge Karen Williams of Orangeburg, S.C. It was not merely that Williams is Graham's fellow South Carolinian. She is precisely the kind of nominee George W. Bush needs to recover from the Miers fiasco. The question is whether the president fully understands that.

 Williams, now 54 years old, was named to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. She is clearly a strong conservative but well thought of by non-conservatives such as Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of South Carolina's leading African-American politicians. It would be hard for Democrats to justify a Senate filibuster against Williams by invoking the "extraordinary circumstances" standard under the "Gang of 14" judicial confirmation compromise.

 The question is whether the president will take this reasonable approach toward a high court vacancy that is considered vital to his core constituency. Considering the fact that he could have embarked on such a course in the first place and avoided the further loss of public confidence caused by the Miers nomination, nobody can be absolutely sure he will not again blunder. That could mean another Miers-like stealth nominee or, at the opposite extreme, an antagonistic nominee who incites the left.

 "What in the world was the president thinking?" was the widely exclaimed question among Bush supporters when they learned he had nominated his White House counsel to a Supreme Court vacancy that could change the outcome of important social questions by shifting the court's balance to the right. It is a question still asked a month later without a satisfactory answer.

 Bush's blunder on Miers reflects his genuine disdain for Washington and the national government, still intense after nearly five years in office. That is basically why he reaches back to longtime friends and associates (cronies, say his critics) whom he trusts. Having been told that the conservative Republican base would not accept his friend Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on the court, Bush tried to sneak through Gonzales's successor as White House counsel.

 That Miers would pass muster inside the White House suggests how limited a group Bush consults. Cronyism is endemic with this president, and there is nobody close at hand to advise him otherwise.

 At the same time Miers was twisting in the wind, Bush created a parallel situation at the Export-Import Bank that is the talk of the bureaucracy and Capitol Hill. The three-year term as the bank's CEO for Philip Merrill, an experienced government official and businessman, expired Jan. 20 and was extended six months to July 20. The post has been vacant since then because Bush's choice, April Foley, has had difficulties getting through the clearance process and has yet to be formally nominated.

 Foley is a former Ex-Im director, but her resume shows no executive experience, either corporate or governmental. Her last available campaign contribution disclosure form, in 2002, lists her as "housewife." But she was one of George W. Bush's girlfriends when they both attended Harvard Business School.

 Bush overcame his predilection for pulling surprises and naming old friends with the expected and widely applauded selection of Ben Bernanke to head the Federal Reserve. Nevertheless, nobody can be sure where he will go on his second-chance Supreme Court pick.

 Democratic senators are daring Bush to precipitate ideological warfare. After assailing Miers as inadequate, the Democrats now blame the extreme right for her demise and challenge the president on whether he intends to appease conservatives. If he takes the dare, he could name another Texas friend: newly confirmed Federal Appellate Judge Priscilla Owen. But Democrats have warned that any judge such as Owen who was filibustered and then confirmed under the "Gang of 14" compromise would constitute "extraordinary circumstances."

 It is hardly imaginable that the president would provoke a new revolt on the right with somebody who would satisfy the Democrats. Confidence about his course is not high among Republicans, however, as he ponders his choice with his trusted adviser Harriet Miers at his side.