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Right Stares Down White House, and Wins

Activists may feel emboldened in this early battle for control of the party's future.

October 28, 2005|Janet Hook and Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — By taking a lead role in sinking the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers, the conservative wing of the Republican Party declared its independence from the White House and asserted its claim to steer the party rightward even after the George W. Bush era.

Miers' surrender Thursday followed a steady drumbeat of criticism from conservative activists and intellectuals who refused to take their president's word that the nominee was on their side.

By the time the plug was pulled, Bush's longtime lawyer and friend faced the remarkable spectacle of conservative activists -- who had been so crucial to Bush's reelection -- launching websites calling for her withdrawal, airing television ads against her and filling blogs with screeds comparing her to liberal feminists like Gloria Steinem. That pressure, in turn, made it hard for conservative Republican senators to embrace Miers.

As her nomination was shelved, some conservatives labored to hide their glee.

"I would urge my fellow conservatives to avoid the temptation to crow about it or take credit," said conservative activist Gary L. Bauer.

In the end, the Miers episode marked the most public display yet of the struggle within the GOP to define the party's image and ideology. It also became an early battle for control of the party once Bush leaves the White House.

The broad conservative movement, which includes evangelicals and economic and intellectual conservatives, is "only going to be emboldened by getting Harriet Miers' scalp," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "They stared down the White House and won."

The message was clear to ambitious Republicans who wish to succeed Bush in the White House: With the exception of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), senators aspiring to run for president were among those asking the most skeptical questions about Miers.

Conservatives also sent a message to the White House to be more attentive to the party's right flank during Bush's three remaining years in office, said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "If they want the conservatives to play on their team, they have to treat them like members of the team rather than outsiders," Keene said.

However, the episode also may pose risks for the GOP if it fuels the perception among swing voters that, as some Democrats maintain, the party is beholden to its most extreme elements.

"It was the very extreme wing of the president's party ... that brought about the withdrawal," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "If the president continues to listen to that extreme wing on judicial nominations or everything else, it can only spell trouble for his presidency and for America."

The criticism over Miers opened the biggest chasm between the president and his political base, and it threatened to become as politically toxic as the conservative rebellion against his father's presidency in 1990 after George H.W. Bush broke his "no-new-taxes" pledge.

Conservative opposition was not the only factor that doomed Miers' nomination: Republicans say that her poor performance in meetings with senators, broader questions about her qualifications and Bush's weakened political state were also important forces. But Miers would have been better equipped to weather those challenges if she had not been turned into a conservative punching bag, people who followed the process said.

Conservatives were emboldened to defy Bush on Miers in part because they had suffered a series of disappointments with his leadership. Bush, for example, never pushed as hard as they wanted for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, an issue he seized during his reelection campaign to mobilize social conservatives but then dropped after winning.

And to the frustration of small-government conservatives, Bush has overseen a huge increase in the size, cost and power of the government by signing big expansions of Medicare, farm subsidies and education spending in his first term.

Although conservatives of all stripes accepted those disappointments with relative calm, they were not so willing to accede to a Supreme Court nomination that fell short of their high expectations: They wanted Bush to choose an established, credentialed conservative who would tilt the court to the right for decades to come.

When Bush instead selected someone whose views were not well documented, the reaction on the right was swift.

Hours after the announcement, William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, appeared on television and proclaimed himself "depressed and demoralized." Conservative activist Manuel Miranda, head of a group that promotes Bush's judicial nominees, circulated an e-mail calling Miers the "least qualified nominee since Abe Fortas," President Johnson's failed pick for chief justice.

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