- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2005

Throughout the political roller coaster of his wartime presidency, George W. Bush managed to maintain the allegiance of his conservative base. Now, in the first year of his second term, parts of that base begin showing signs of distrust.

Conservative crankiness among dozens of grass-roots activist groups exploded last week at two closed-door meetings where top White House advisers sought to reassure the party faithful that Harriet Miers, Bush’s White House counsel and his Supreme Court nominee, is really one of them.

How ironic that, after all the predictions Mr. Bush’s second choice for the high court would trigger a battle royal with liberal Democrats, and (if you believe Howard Dean’s threats) a filibuster to block her confirmation, most of the fire is coming from Mr. Bush’s base. Indeed, the Democratic base and their liberal shock troops seemed relatively quiet and more than a little off-balance. Even Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid was effusively praising Miss Miers.

The conservative complaints about her ran the gamut — too little was known about her judicial views; the White House didn’t bother to consult them; she had a mediocre legal background devoid of constitutional law; she had no previous judicial experience; and she was a “crony” of the president.

But there was much more behind these complaints than Miss Miers. Conservative angst has been building for some time over Mr. Bush’s refusal to veto pork-filled spending bills, his massive Medicare prescription drug benefit program, and assorted things Mr. Bush pushed to the back burner so he could focus on higher-priority issues.

Then there was the disappointment that the ideological confirmation battle many of these groups had hoped for doesn’t seem very likely, unless more is known about Miss Miers’ judicial views. A number of conservative leaders complained they were ready, as one put it, “to go to the mat on this fight,” a battle that would pour millions into their depleted bank accounts in direct-mail fund-raising. That seems less likely now, too.

Moreover, it remains to be seen if the complaints of these inside-the-Beltway advocacy groups accurately reflect Mr. Bush’s political base out in the country. The fact remains that, despite their anger over the president’s sharp spending increases and expanded government programs, Mr. Bush has maintained strong support in his party’s base. Even with his job approval polls falling to the mid-40s as a result of Iraq, the economy and gas prices, he still has the support of 85 percent or more of his party’s rank-and-file voters.

Nevertheless, the White House is taking these complaints seriously. And last week the president dispatched heavyweight political advisers like Ed Gillespie to try to calm the conservative revolt and reassure wait-and-see loyalists that Miss Miers’ ideological credentials were as solid as Bush said.

Mr. Gillespie handled much of the political lobbying that helped win Chief Justice John Roberts’ confirmation, and he has been given the job again in the Miers nomination battle.

Another strategic development: Missing from much of the news about the conservative rebellion was Mr. Bush’s winning the support, or the benefit of the doubt, from a number of social conservative group leaders, including James C. Dobson, head of the influential Focus on the Family, and the National Right to Life Committee, the largest pro-life grass-roots organization.

Both groups are enormously influential in the GOP’s rank-and-file base, and will no doubt compel a number of wary Senate conservatives in the coming confirmation debate.

Several other bits of information have come to light since my column last week on the Miers nomination.

One concerns the right-to-life, a major issue in Judge Roberts’ confirmation. He steadfastly refused to say what his views would be if the issue came before the court again. But one of Miss Miers’ closest friends provided a revealing peek into her thinking. Nathan Hecht, a Texas Supreme Court justice, recalled her saying after attending a lecture at her Dallas evangelical church, “I’m convinced that life begins at conception.”

How that will shape her views on Roe v. Wade if she is confirmed for the high court no can say, but we can say more is known about her views on this deeply moral and religious issue than Judge Roberts was willing to divulge.

Some social conservative leaders now say it won’t take much to put them solidly in Miss Miers’ corner and that the Bush record on appointing judicial conservatives carries great weight.

“It’s not unusual for this president to promote and stick with people he knows pretty well and is reflective of his philosophy,” Family Research Council head Tony Perkins told me.

“That is one element that gives people comfort about this nomination. That, combined with a shred or two of evidence to corroborate the president’s statement, I think may be enough to put her over the top in terms of support,” Mr. Perkins said.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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