Harriet Miers’ withdrawal of her nomination to the Supreme Court is only the most recent embarrassment in a growing line of setbacks for a president who at one time seemed to have the magic touch.
During his first term President Bush succeeded against staunch opposition in pushing through controversial initiatives such as education reform and tax cuts. He won congressional backing for the war in Iraq and even succeeded in creating a Medicaid prescription drug benefit.
But since taking the oath of office for a second term last January, the president has encountered any number of impediments. The top item on his domestic agenda, overhauling Social Security, appears dead on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers haven’t yet acted on his request to make certain temporary tax cuts permanent. And now there is the Miers debacle, all insinuating a White House adrift.
The president’s sudden loss of juice can be attributed to several factors. Weighed down to a large extent by a war that just witnessed its 2,000th American military death, Bush has witnessed his popularity plummet, with most polls showing his approval rating dipping below 40 percent. That’s not an event that has skipped the notice of GOP lawmakers who might face tough re-election battles next year.
And there’s the theory that the special grand jury investigating the leak of an undercover CIA operative’s name to the press has caused the administration to lose focus. Karl Rove, the president’s top political adviser, is among those feeling the heat from the investigation.
Bush’s biggest problem at the moment clearly is the sudden erosion of his social conservative base. The president never has been popular with Democrats, obviously, and while his support among independents has fallen over the past few months, polls establish that much of the attrition is occurring among those who place stock in their opposition to abortion and gay rights issues.
Those groups, crucial to Bush’s election in both 2000 and 2004, were outspoken in their opposition to Miers, finding that the White House counsel wasn’t ideologically pure enough to assume a seat on the high court.
While a number of Republican senators _ including Trent Lott, the former Senate GOP leader _ expressed some reservations about the Miers nomination, none had publicly called for her withdrawal. Those demands came from conservative groups.
“An influential segment of the right wing was profoundly disappointed that, with Harriet Miers, the president did not nominate a proven ‘movement’ conservative who would carry out their political agenda on the bench,” said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal watchdog group. “They have been clamoring for the withdrawal of Ms. Miers’ nomination for weeks. What has happened today is an ominous indication of capitulation to such pressure.”
Now, ironically, Bush may be in a position to recapture at least some of his renegade base. A new nominee, with established conservative credentials, could have the effect of returning the social right to the fold _ a move that might ultimately help advance his agenda.
“Her decision to withdraw only shows the strength of the far right within the Republican Party,” said E. Christopher Murray, a civil rights attorney in Garden City, N.Y. “President Bush has no choice but to appease the extreme right. Miers’ decision not only underscores the lack of support she found on the hill, but also underscores the crippling problems facing this administration during its remaining time in office.”
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he recommended the president consider nominating Miers during their private conversations on filling the Supreme Court, added but her credentials were “not good enough for the right wing. They want a nominee with a proven record of supporting their skewed goals.
“In choosing a replacement for Ms. Miers, President Bush should not reward the bad behavior of his right wing base,” Reid said. “He should reject the demands of a few extremists and choose a justice who will protect the constitutional rights of all Americans.”
(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)