The withdrawal of Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court presents a comeback opportunity for President Bush. With so many things going wrong at once - from declining poll numbers, to declining support for the Iraq war, to various scenarios involving indictments of his top officials, the president can begin to win back public confidence with several steps, beginning with Miers' replacement.
His next Supreme Court selection should address all of the concerns that led to the demise of Miers' nomination. I doubt if many believe the White House cover story that she had to withdraw over concerns that senators wanted documents that may have violated executive privilege and that, as a result, she would have reached an impasse with the Senate Judiciary Committee.
President Bush must now do what he should have done before getting sidetracked with the unexplainable and indefensible Miers nomination. He must name a solid conservative with a known track record of fighting for an "original understanding" of the Constitution, one who has strong convictions. He should then pledge to fight for her, or him, and give his conservative base the ideological and constitutional battle they've been requesting.
When Democrat and liberal opposition surfaces, the president should repeatedly invoke the doctrines and some of the screwball ideas held by liberal justices confirmed with Republican votes. He should then ask whether the public wants judges telling them what they must do, or if "we the people" would rather instruct politicians. This is an ideological battle for control of the court and country. He's fighting it with persistence in Iraq. He should fight this different, but equally important, war at home with similar resolve and conviction.
The domestic battle is being fought on more than one front. The president has come too late to the table on spending cuts. He now says he wants Congress to curb its "spending appetite," but he has been an enabler by refusing to veto a single spending bill, thus encouraging them to spend more, depriving his party of one of its core issues. He can highlight outrageous pork barrel spending and when members complain, he can appeal to the public, asking us if we want to tolerate waste, fraud and abuse. Last week, Alaska's Republican senator, Ted Stevens, threatened to resign if money for his state's "Bridge to Nowhere" is taken away. That is the best idea I've heard since the term limits movement of some years ago. The president might offer to attend his going-away party.
President Bush does well in small settings that are conversational and unscripted. I have seen him in such situations and the contrast between these small groups and large public events is sharp. He should tour the country, as he did when campaigning twice for the job, meeting with "average" citizens, including those who have legitimate questions about his policies, and not political activists from the Michael Moore-Cindy Sheehan-MoveOn.org fringe. The meetings could be crafted as mini "town halls" and would enjoy heavy local news coverage. He should take some liberated Iraqis with him who would thank Americans for their sacrifices in lives, blood and money.
It should be clear by now that the president's effort to create a "new tone" in Washington hasn't worked, nor did it ever have a chance of working. That sounded nice for the campaigns, but it is impractical among self-seeking and often self-serving politicians who embrace a survival-of-the-fittest political Darwinism. The president should re-state his convictions and then craft policies and legislation reflecting those convictions.
Harriet Miers' withdrawal offers an opportunity for the president to recharge his base - which had stuck with him, despite numerous disappointments, until he chose Miers. He says he's a real conservative. Real conservatives would like to see him start acting like one. If he does, his second-term turnaround could be immediate and dramatic.
- Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.