San Diego Union Tribune

October 7, 2005

Ruckus over court nomination threatens Bush's stature

By Finlay Lewis

WASHINGTON – Not yet a mutiny, conservative anger over Harriet Miers has mushroomed into a significant challenge to President Bush's political stature because it has crystallized long-standing misgivings over federal spending and a family lineage sullied by a promise broken 15 years ago.

The ruckus from the Republican right now engulfing Bush's nomination of his White House counsel to the U.S. Supreme Court captures haunting echoes of his father's disastrous falling out with the Republican Party's conservative base.

The breach occurred because the first President Bush was believed to have broken his "read my lips" promise of no new taxes. And now conservatives are pointing to the current president's campaign promises to move the high court to the right and worrying that history might be repeating itself.

Ironically, the son's determination to avoid his father's mistakes has been a defining characteristic of his administration. But the need to respond to unforeseen disasters and the pressures to reach out to moderates, independents and Democrats seem to have soured relations with GOP conservatives in spite of his efforts.

"It's a critical turning point for the president's relationship with the conservative base," said Marshall Wittmann, a former top official of the Christian Coalition who is now closely affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "I think there was building frustration that came to a boiling point among some with the Miers nomination, in part because their expectations were so high for the court, which is the critical issue for many conservatives – indeed most conservatives."

Conservatives say Miers' opaque record as Bush's attorney might conceal moderate, or even liberal, tendencies, and that in any case she is not sufficiently distinguished for the position.

Their angst may be premature. A strong conservative performance by the nominee in confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee and later on the high court could lay those anxieties to rest.

But even that outcome would not entirely quell a rebellion among conservatives aghast at the Bush record on federal spending and reducing the size of the federal government.

"The president has kept this from becoming a full boil because of his tax cuts," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who has closely studied the conservative movement. "It is a simmering issue and could at any moment . . . boil over."

On Bush's watch, federal spending has mounted steadily. In 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration, checks written on the federal treasury amounted to 18.4 percent of the value of the total U.S. economy. By 2004, they amounted to 19.8 percent, spurred in large part by post-9/11 mobilization. And that's not counting the cost of cleaning up after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and paying the latest tab for the U.S. military deployment in Iraq.

An editorial yesterday in the Manchester, N.H., Union-Leader, a key voice of the conservative establishment, declared, "If a conservative is someone who believes that government should be as small, lean and local as possible, then it is hard to argue that President Bush is one. If he is, he has a most peculiar way of showing it."

David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, said Bush's relationship with the GOP base has been marred by revulsion "that there is a spending orgy going on, and that nobody is doing anything about it. . . . And then the problem is exacerbated by the Harriet Miers' nomination."

The high court's urgency as an issue in the eyes of social conservatives is rooted in another decision of the first President Bush – the Supreme Court nomination of David Souter, who was billed as bolstering the court's conservative wing.

In the eyes of many right-wing activists, Souter's subsequent alignment with the court's moderate bloc stands as a betrayal of equal magnitude to father Bush's signature on a balanced budget bill in 1990 that incorporated a tax increase. In one stroke, he seemed to break his promise as a presidential candidate when he pledged, "Read my lips. No new taxes."

"(The younger Bush) came into office with one promise," Keene said. "That is, that he was going to change the Supreme Court. (Conservatives) are looking at it now, and saying, 'We heard his father say read my lips, no more taxes, and then go back on it. And now we're looking at this.' "

Richard Lessner, former executive director of the American Conservative Union, condemned the Miers nomination as a more serious transgression than the father's apostasy on taxes.

"This is about the United States Supreme Court. This is fundamental to our system of governance. . . . People can agree or disagree about the propriety of tax cuts. Those are . . . temporary. It's not a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, which decides momentous issues."

It appears that Bush, approaching his sixth year as president, is showing the wear and tear of having governed during a period of unusual turbulence.

Said Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster, "The president is trying to lead a majority coalition, which means that he cannot blindly follow the wishes of any one portion of that coalition. That creates a political balancing act. And sometimes you get the balance right. And sometimes you don't."

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