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Conservatives feel betrayed by Bush
Analysis: Conservative base, feeling betrayed by selection of Miers, lashed out at Bush

Marc Sandalow / SF Chronicle | October 28 2005

Harriett Miers' 25-day odyssey as a Supreme Court nominee exposed a serious rift between President Bush and his conservative base, posing a surprising challenge as he tries to emerge from his presidency's darkest days.

In choosing Miers, a nominee with no judicial track record but a long history of personal loyalty, Bush essentially told conservatives: "Trust me.''

They didn't.

At a time when Bush's popularity has sunk to its lowest level, he must find a way to mollify his conservative, and traditionally most reliable, supporters at the same time he reaches out to moderates as he pursues the war in Iraq, Social Security reform, tax simplification and other priorities of his second term.

In Democratic enclaves such as Northern California, many liberals find Bush's policies so deplorable that they assume their ideological counterparts on the right adore him. The Miers saga revealed a more complicated and tenuous relationship.

Critics who have blamed Bush for ignoring the political center since his contested victory in 2000 got a crash course in what happens to a Republican president who does not please the right on a matter as important as the Supreme Court.

Conservatives expressed more disdain for Bush's agenda and more contempt for his leadership in the past month than they had in the first 56 months of his presidency combined. They questioned his integrity and intellectual capacity and jeered his handlers for the way they disparaged their complaints, much as Democrats have done for the past four years.

Many suspect Miers' abrupt departure on the eve of possible indictments against top administration officials in the CIA leak probe was a timely effort by the White House to make amends with its base. Some on the left decried it as capitulation.

Yet even if Bush delivers his base an unabashed conservative ideologue to replace Miers, many of the harsh words uttered since he nominated her on Oct. 3 will be hard to take back.

"(Bush) has neither the inclination nor the ability to make sophisticated judgments about competing approaches to construing the Constitution,'' conservative columnist George Will wrote on Oct. 5. "The president has forfeited his right to be trusted as a custodian of the Constitution.''

On the day Miers was nominated, William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, wrote: "It is very hard to avoid the conclusion that President Bush flinched from a fight on constitutional philosophy. ... What are the prospects for a strong Bush second term? What are the prospects for holding solid GOP majorities in Congress in 2006 if conservatives are demoralized?''

And just last week, David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union wrote: "We've swallowed policies we might otherwise have objected to because we've believed that he and those around him are themselves conservatives trying to do the right thing against sometimes terrible odds. We've been there for him because we've considered ourselves part of his team. No more.''

Conservative contempt for Bush, though far from universal, extends to matters far beyond the Miers' nomination. Many on the right are deeply upset by the huge expansion of government spending and rise in the national debt. Others are opposed to the entanglement in Iraq, the Patriot Act, the expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs and Bush's signing into law of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance measure.

"The fact is, from the beginning there have been a number of things that conservatives have been either leery of, or upset with, the way the Bush administration has proceeded,'' Keene said Thursday.

"It was the promise to move the Supreme Court decidedly to the right that motivated many conservatives to vote in record numbers in the 2004 election," he said.

"The Bush folks told conservatives explicitly, maybe you don't like the spending, maybe you disagree with our foreign policy or the war in Iraq, or the Patriot Act, but this is about the Supreme Court. This is what George Bush said he was going to do, to get someone in the mold of (justices Antonin) Scalia and (Clarence) Thomas.''

When Bush nominated Miers, Keene said conservatives felt betrayed just as they had a generation earlier, when Bush's father agreed to raise taxes after declaring during the campaign: "Read my lips, no new taxes.''

"You never completely repair it,'' Keene said. "They've got a lot of fence-mending to do.''

Bush now confronts an opening on the court with the same seemingly impossible task he faced when the summer began: fulfilling his pledge to conservatives to move the court to the right while fulfilling his promise to be a uniter, not a divider.

Senate Democrats, none of whom had said they had planned to vote for Miers, decried her withdrawal Thursday as a capitulation to the right.

"Not a single Republican senator called for Harriet Miers' withdrawal,'' said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "It was the very extreme wing of the president's party ... that brought about the withdrawal. 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.''

It is not Democrats, who long ago abandoned Bush, whom the president needs to worry about. Bush's drop in popularity over the past several months -- about four in 10 Americans say they approve of the job he is doing as president -- is largely due to mounting frustration among Republicans and independents.

His agenda is in trouble if he cannot find votes among centrist Democrats and independents. His agenda is dead if he cannot find enthusiasm among his conservative base.


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