President George W. Bush, already under fire from conservtives in his own party, drew more anger from the right wing Monday by nominating a trusted but little known adviser to fill a vacant swing seat on the Supreme Court.
Angry conservatives called Bush’s nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers, a lawyer with no judicial experience and whose views on key issues are largely unknown, a broken campaign pledge to appoint justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the court’s two most conservative members.
Miers would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a swing vote on the divided nine-member court whose decision to step down gave conservatives a long-awaited chance to shift the court to the right on hot-button issues like abortion and affirmative action.
Conservative critics said politics, particularly Bush’s dipping poll numbers amid bad news from Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, had robbed the president of the will to take on Democrats and the left with a more confrontational choice.
“Here’s what we do know: Polls are driving President Bush’s court picks. At a low ebb in his presidency, the president has passed over well-known, if controversial, constitutionalists and chosen a sphinx-like presidential pal,” said Mark Moller, editor of the Supreme Court Review at the conservative Cato Institute.
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, said he was “disappointed, depressed and demoralized” by the appointment of Miers.
“It is very hard to avoid the conclusion that President Bush flinched from a fight on constitutional philosophy,” Kristol said on the magazine’s Web site.
A prolonged and politically vicious Senate confirmation battle, which Bush avoided with the nomination of John Roberts as chief justice, could make it harder for a weakened Bush to build support for any of his languishing initiatives, from tax cuts to Iraq.
‘COULD HURT’ IN 2006
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a conservative ally of Bush, said the president would not be intimidated by a battle over the nomination, but added, “I don’t think he was looking for a fight either.”
Manuel Miranda, a former aide to Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist and chairman of a conservative coalition working on judicial issues, said “something has been left unachieved by the Miers nomination” and warned the choice could haunt Republicans in 2006 by convincing conservatives to stay home.
“This could hurt Republicans in the 2006 election. It will quell enthusiasm — just like the president’s father did in 1992 after he broke his no new taxes pledge,” he said.
Many other conservative groups, headed by the influential Progress for America, endorsed the nomination and pledged to go to work to support Miers, who would be the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
Democrats largely took a more cautious approach, pointing out no one knew where Miers stood on crucial issues before the court and calling for a full release of her writings and recommendations as White House counsel.
Richard Reuben, a law professor and Supreme Court expert at the University of Missouri, said there would likely be a battle for Miers’ executive memos, which she could claim as privileged communication.
By offering up a blank slate, he said, Bush was asking conservative supporters to trust him.
“If Bush was politically stronger, he might have been willing to make a more confrontational appointment,” Reuben said. “But we don’t know anything about Harriet Miers, and the only person who does is Bush.”
The Center for Responsive Politics said fund raising records showed Miers contributed $1,000 to Democrat Al Gore, former Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and the Democratic National Committee in the late 1980s, but had given to Republicans since.
“Many of us in Texas grew up Democrats, because there weren’t many Republicans elected to state-wide office,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.