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For Some on Right, a Letdown

Conservatives, having sought to tilt the balance of the court, see the pick as a missed opportunity.

October 04, 2005|Mary Curtius, Richard Simon and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — "Disappointed." "Missed opportunity." "Unforced error." Those were among the reactions Monday to President Bush's nomination of White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court -- not from the usual Democratic critics of the president, but from conservatives.

For many who have waited decades for the chance to decisively alter the balance on the Supreme Court, Bush's decision to bypass nominees with clear, conservative records was inexplicable and fell short of the sort of bold, confrontational choice they had expected.

Some of the groups that were looking forward to building campaigns in support of a conservative choice said that, instead of getting to work, they would have to wait and learn more about Miers.

"What we had wanted was somebody where we could really get out there and work hard and cheer," said Paul M. Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, a Washington think tank. "The Democrats were promising the battle of Armageddon, and we were going to give it to them. Now we have to sit back and watch for the hearings.... If she performs well, then we can get behind her."

"I'm disappointed, depressed and demoralized," William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, wrote in the online edition of the conservative magazine. David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, called the nomination an "unforced error" in a column on the National Review website.

The White House took immediate steps to try to reassure groups on the right about Bush's choice to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is regarded as a swing vote on the high court.

Vice President Dick Cheney, dispatched to appear on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, assured the conservative talk show host that Miers had a "conservative judicial philosophy that you'd be comfortable with."

On Capitol Hill, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called on conservative groups "not to prejudge" the nominee. "She does, I believe -- like the president -- believe that judges should not legislate from the bench but rather strictly interpret the law," Cornyn said.

Some conservative leaders said they were untroubled by the choice of Miers. "I'm going to give this president the benefit of the doubt on any nomination until I have compelling evidence to the contrary," said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Jay Sekulow, an evangelical who is chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said that he knew Miers and that she "typifies the kind of judicial philosophy the president was looking for." He called her a "great pick" and expressed confidence that conservatives would come around once they learned more about her.

Still, the selection of Miers recalled for some conservatives the nomination of New Hampshire's David H. Souter for the high court by President George H.W. Bush. John H. Sununu, who was White House chief of staff at the time, called Souter a "home run for conservatives."

But Souter has not worked out that way. He has regularly sided with the court's liberal wing.

Land said that he understood conservative anxiety because "many have been burned in the past, but not by [the current president]."

Weyrich, however, called the nomination "a missed opportunity" and said he had expressed his disappointment to the White House. Still, Weyrich did not say he would oppose the nomination.

Weyrich said he believed Bush chose Miers because he has been politically weakened by his much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina and other political setbacks.

"I think the president thinks that he's weak and that he has to have somebody that wouldn't cause a controversy," Weyrich said. "I think that it's a huge miscalculation. If there is any kind of controversy and she doesn't have us behind her, she's going to be in trouble."

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