A High-Stakes Game for Bush

The potentially explosive choice of a new Supreme Court justice creates a maze of political risks for President Bush, with a wrong move either angering his conservative base or igniting a partisan brawl that could sink the rest of his second-term agenda.

The retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a crucial swing vote on the divided nine-member court, gives Bush and conservatives a long-awaited opportunity to dramatically shift the court to the right on hot-button social issues like abortion, affirmative action and civil liberties.

But Democrats and interest groups on the left promise an all-out battle to block any nominee they view as too conservative. They have called on Bush to appoint a new justice in the mold of O’Connor, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan who at times sided against the court’s most conservative members on a series of crucial 5-4 votes.

Both sides are marshaling money and manpower for an epic political war. Analysts say the fight could pollute Washington’s already strained atmosphere and turn off middle-of-the-road voters seen as crucial to Republican hopes to expand their majority in the 2006 congressional elections and win the 2008 White House race.

A prolonged Senate confirmation battle also could make it tough for Bush to build support for languishing initiatives like the war in Iraq and the revamping of Social Security, analysts said.

“Bush has to decide if he wants to keep the base happy and maybe sacrifice his dreams for unity on Iraq — as well as much of his domestic legislative agenda,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor at the University of Texas.

Keeping conservatives happy has been a key component of Bush’s political strategy, and he has made a series of conservative judicial appointments to lower courts that have drawn Democratic opposition. But the chance to dramatically shift the Supreme Court to the right has raised the stakes even higher.

“This was going to be an intense battle whoever retired,” said Brian McCabe, president of the conservative Progress for America, which plans an $18 million blitz on behalf of Bush’s nominee. “But it is certainly more intense now.”


Conservatives have pressed Bush to appoint a new justice in the image of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the court’s most conservative members and the two justices Bush says he admires most.

They also have told the White House that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would not be acceptable because of questions about his views on abortion.

“President Bush must nominate someone whose judicial philosophy is crystal clear,” said James Dobson, founder of the conservative religious group Focus on the Family.

“And no one has been clearer about this than the president himself, who said during his campaign that he would appoint justices in the mold of Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia,” Dobson said.

On the left, liberal interest groups say their hope is that Bush will appoint a judge who evaluates issues on a case-by-case basis, rather than a strict ideologue.

“It’s a defining moment for President Bush,” said Elliot Mincberg, legal director for the liberal People for the American Way, which is leading the coalition of interest groups prepared to challenge Bush’s choice.

“It may be the president’s last real chance to fulfill his pledge to the American people to be a uniter, not a divider,” he said. “Does he decide to pick a judge or pick a fight?”

Buchanan said Bush has the ability to be pragmatic on crucial political issues, as he showed on legislative compromises over tax cuts, the Homeland Security Department and school vouchers.

“He’s also got a contrarian streak that suggests he might try to surprise people,” Buchanan said. “And he certainly has a strong incentive to move to the center in order to preserve the chance for forward progress on other high priority measures.”

© Reuters 2005.