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Archive for Sunday, October 30, 2005

Democrats pay price for Bush mistake

October 30, 2005

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It isn't often the president of the United States messes up and his political enemies pay the price for his error.

But that will be the upshot of Harriet Miers' aborted Supreme Court nomination.

It was one conceived to avoid alienating Democrats but took Republicans for granted.

Because President Bush's poll numbers have been low, he wanted to avoid a bruising Senate confirmation fight by picking someone whose lack of a paper trail or enemies would disarm the opposition.

It did, but that is a questionable strategy in zero-sum Washington, where the Democrats are the minority, and catering to them inevitably alienates your own supporters, who are the majority in the Senate, which confirms judges.

In the short run - which given the temporary nature of politics probably means through the weekend - George W. Bush has egg on his face and deservedly so.

His choice of Miers, without doubt a talented lawyer and longtime Bush acolyte, was a mistake.

The president made several fundamental misjudgments:

¢ He overestimated how much weight his endorsement carried with Republicans - not just the office holders, but the grass-roots folks as well.

¢ He didn't appreciate that the Supreme Court has become an emotional issue to conservatives, who were more than willing to stomach a nasty confirmation fight to get whom they want.

¢ And, he didn't understand just how much Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid's blessing for Miers would immediately raise suspicions among conservatives that the president was selling them out.

For two decades, while Republicans have slowly but surely seized political power in the United States, the court system has been the last salvation for liberals/Democrats.

It has been the courts that have stopped GOP presidents, federal and state lawmakers from working their will on a variety of issues - not just abortion and gay marriage, but business regulation and the environment as well.

The Miers nomination was torpedoed by Bush's friends who believed that the president had mistaken her personal loyalty to him for the kind of judicial orientation they, and presumably he, want on the Supreme Court.

It is probably unfair to the president, but his father's 1990 choice for the Supreme Court of David Souter undercut the Miers nomination badly within Republican circles. When Bush the elder nominated Souter, he, too, was advertised as a conservative, but Souter's record on the court stamps him as among the most liberal of the Supremes today.

Having gotten to the point where Republicans control the process, with a GOP president and Senate, the GOP infrastructure was simply unwilling to take a chance on Miers despite Bush's insistence he knew her to be the kind of judge he and they wanted.

Bush will certainly suffer politically because of it now. It won't help his already low poll numbers and will make it easier for the news media to do stories about an incompetent White House.

Yet, it is hard to see how this episode will have a long-lasting negative effect on his presidency, assuming his next choice keeps his constituents happy and is confirmed.

But in the longer term, Democrats in the Senate and around the country will be much less happy with who he nominates in Miers' place than they would have been with her on the Supreme Court.

The new nominee will almost certainly be someone much more acceptable to Bush's Republican base.

And that means, given the way the world works inside the Beltway, that person - almost certainly a she - will inspire much more opposition from Democrats than did Miers.

The dirty-little-not-so-secret was that Democrats who oppose Bush initiatives as a matter of course kept quiet on the Miers nomination for two reasons:

¢ They enjoyed the political theater of internal Republican bloodletting.

¢ Even though they were not sure exactly where she stood on the issues they cared most about - abortion, gay marriage and racial quotas - the scant evidence made it clear that on those matters she would be more acceptable to them than anyone they could have hoped for from the White House.

Given that Bush will likely now give the Democrats a nominee many of them will hate, a no-holds-barred confirmation fight that the president was hoping to avoid seems in the cards.

Yet, by giving his own troops someone they like, most Republicans will get what they want after a nasty fight that will make Democrats wish instead that Harriet Miers was sitting on the Supreme Court for the next two decades.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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