Some conservatives are saying now that President Bush’s withdrawal of the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination was merely an “apparent” victory for conservative critics and only a temporary reprieve for Mr. Bush, whose political base remains ill at ease over a variety of issues not related to the federal judiciary.
These conservatives say Mr. Bush’s action on Miss Miers alone will not be enough to heal serious and long-developing rifts largely hidden from public view until the imbroglio over her high court nomination.
One such rift is between determined Bush loyalists on the right and those interest-group leaders who say the conservative movement is larger than either Mr. Bush or the Republican Party.
Until the Miers issue exploded on the scene, these critics had remained quiet about their strong disagreements with the president. The Miers nomination led high-profile conservatives such as Richard Viguerie, Phyllis Schlafly and Paul M. Weyrich to break publicly for the first time with Mr. Bush. That in turn angered the president’s defenders.
“I’m sick and tired of you people stirring things up against George W. Bush the minute he does something you don’t completely agree with, when he has just given you 20 things you do agree with,” longtime activist Jim Martin shouted at some fellow conservatives who had just spoken out against Mr. Bush during a tumultuous strategy session last week.
The objects of his ire dismissed his complaints and those of other Bush defenders as coming from “shills for the White House.”
Such infighting could get uglier, both sides say, depending on what Mr. Bush does on a number of fronts, starting with his next pick for the Supreme Court.
The choice of Miss Miers was significant because, conservatives critics agreed, it caused some on the right to go public for the first time with their criticism of Mr. Bush, blaming him directly for a major decision he made instead of blaming it on White House advisers, administration aides or renegade Republicans in Congress.
“Withdrawing Miers put a Band-Aid on the rift,” says George Conway III, a New York lawyer who is beginning to emerge as one of the new generation of conservative-activist leaders. “That rift now is healed and will be reopened only if he makes the same mistake twice — then the Band-Aid will come right off.”
“Miers was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back among conservatives,” says Mr. Conway, who worked behind the scenes against President Clinton during the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky scandals.
He says some nationally prominent conservative leaders have privately dissented from most or, in some cases, all of the president’s initiatives on a range of fronts. “It’s a long, long list.”
He says it includes expanding the federal government’s role in education and the welfare state through Medicare drug benefits, encroachment on personal freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism, the decision to go to war with Iraq and what they see as mismanaging the war, not opposing the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance regulations, promoting a guest-worker program for illegal aliens and not fighting the principle of enforced diversity in the University of Michigan racial-preferences cases.
The divisions on the right jeopardize Mr. Bush’s chances of leaving behind an unalloyed reputation, a positive “legacy,” when he leaves office and his party’s chances for maintaining majority control. Republicans won bicameral dominance in 1994 for the first time in 40 years because they expanded, united and excited the party’s conservative base.
A base enduring civil war is not what the president or Republicans in general want, conservatives say.
Yet conservatives in the Bush-Miers camp last week were sniping at other conservatives, claiming that private polls showed evangelical leaders Richard Land and James Dobson, who supported Miss Miers’ choice, were in touch with grass-roots social conservative opinion outside the Beltway while many of the president’s critics on the right were out of touch with the conservative base.
Mrs. Schlafly dismisses those claims.
“There is certainly a segment of the religious right that trusts the president,” she says. “I do a lot of talk shows, and people say he is a godly man and they trust him. However, they are not the majority of grass-roots conservatives you find in organizations like the Eagle Forum and Concerned Women for America.”
Mrs. Schlafly says the movement can heal its internal rift and the rift with the president, provided he makes the right moves, beginning with his next Supreme Court nominee.
A similar tack is taken by Mr. Weyrich, who has avoided criticizing Mr. Bush directly on foreign and domestic policy issues by writing and speaking about what the next phase of conservatism should look like.
“What is important is that we get a nominee who can rally the troops,” Mr. Weyrich says.
Many anti-Miers conservatives disagree on the desirability and purpose of a nomination fight.
“I think it is a bogus claim people in the press make when they say what the right wants is a fight about ideology,” Mr. Conway says. “No. What we want is a good justice nominee but not a fight for the sake of having a fight. If it takes a fight to get a good justice, fine.”
Horace Cooper, a former Bush Labor Department official who is now a constitutional law professor at George Mason University, supported the Miers nomination, and he now says a Senate confirmation fight could be useful.
“We need a certifiably conservative judge as Bush’s choice so that the fight in the Senate provides that ‘teaching moment’ when we can explain to the nation what we mean by conservative and constitutionalist.”
But in Mr. Weyrich’s view, a Bush White House averse to all battles that aren’t foreign should understand that the fight over the Supreme Court is what’s going to be what counts for the future of the president and his party.
“It’s not so important that Bush and the White House win or lose the confirmation fight but that they win back the confidence of the people and regain the coalition that had held together because he had appointed good judges” to the federal bench, Mr. Weyrich says.