THE WITHDRAWAL of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers is the first step on the road to political recovery for President Bush. It gives him the opportunity to select a well-known judicial conservative for the Court vacancy, rally conservatives who opposed or were skeptical of Miers, and rebuild his political base.
Winning confirmation won't be easy. Democrats already have their story down: Bush capitulated to the far right in jettisoning Miers and his new nominee will be a right-wing extremist. My guess is Democrats will stick to this narrative no matter whom the president chooses from the roster of a dozen or more conservatives with strong credentials and deep experience in constitutional law.
But a fight would be good for Bush. Battling for a highly qualified nominee, this time with conservatives on his side, would hasten the consolidation of his base. And if he's going to accomplish anything significant in the three-plus years left in his second term, he needs his base. He'll also have Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist with him enthusiastically--and prepared to impose the "nuclear option" to shut off a Democratic filibuster if necessary.
Once a new nominee is confirmed, the next steps for Bush are fairly obvious. Some of them are set in place. The first is to champion spending cuts beyond the $35 billion he proposed to slash from his 2006 budget. The second is to hold down spending on the Katrina recovery. The good news is that Katrina funds previously appropriated are being used up at a slower pace than expected.
Then there's immigration, an issue on which the president and his base are at odds. Yet a compromise wouldn't be impossible, if Bush agreed to tougher security on the southern border with double or triple the number of border guards and conservatives agreed to lighten up on illegal immigrants already living in the United States. By avoiding harsh treatment of Mexican immigrants here, Republicans could avert a backlash from Hispanic-Americans, a voting bloc of growing importance.
Bush's strength as president is based on three things: his penchant for bold leadership, Republican control of Congress, and his political base of an overlapping group of Republicans and conservatives. To govern effectively, he needs all three.
If he has them, he'll able to overcome a major bump in the path to recovery that may occur Friday: the indictment of White House aides Karl Rove and Scooter Libby in the CIA leak case.
The president got into trouble with conservatives by not being bold in picking a replacement for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Bush wanted a woman and chose one--Miers--whom he figured wouldn't provoke a major confirmation struggle in the Senate. He sought to avoid a fight, an unusual tack for him, by not selecting a certifiable conservative such as Priscilla Owen, who is a U.S. appeals court judge.
But not only were Republican senators lukewarm (at best) on Miers, Democrats were bound to jump on her when hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee began November 7. It might have ugly.
Miers and the White House used as the excuse for withdrawal that the Senate was demanding documents from her work as presidential legal counselor and, earlier, as staff secretary and deputy chief of staff. Since these couldn't be handed over--they'd jeopardize confidentiality--she had to withdraw.
True, this was a problem. But a bigger problem was the possibility of embarrassment at the hearings for both Miers and Bush, followed by Senate rejection. Even sympathetic senators who met with Miers worried she might not be able to discuss constitutional law and specific cases with confidence and credibility. Moreover, though the president insisted she'd be a reliable judicial conservative on the high court, recent press reports of statements she'd made in the 1990s raised serious questions about that.
A week ago, senators who met with Bush at the White House said he was so adamant about sticking with Miers that he'd say no if she asked to have her nomination withdrawn. Since then, however, public support for her failed to materialize. The anti-Miers drumbeat by conservatives continued and Republican senators remained wary.
How will this affect the Supreme Court? Chances are the successor to O'Conner will now be the real thing, a justice with unequivocally conservative leanings who tilts the ideological balance of the court to the right. Whether Miers would have had the same impact we'll never know.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.