Friday, October 28, 2005

Conservatives were heartened by yesterday’s withdrawal of the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination and say it has given President Bush a fresh start to unite his conservative base for the judicial, legislative and election battles to come.

The move ends a bitter family fight with his conservative supporters that Mr. Bush could ill-afford while he and his party were under fierce attack on a growing number of political fronts.

“This was tearing apart the conservative movement and the Republican Party and was potentially inflicting longer-term devastation to Bush’s winning coalition. So it’s good that the White House is bringing this chapter to a close when he needs a united party,” Republican campaign strategist Scott Reed said yesterday.

Political adviser Frank Donatelli, a Reagan White House political director, called the move “an opportunity for conservative groups and the administration to patch up their differences and get back to talking about issues.”

One of those issues will be judicial nominees, and conservatives who said the family quarrel was over also were saying Mr. Bush must now pick a proven conservative in the mold of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas to fill the Supreme Court slot.

“The conservative movement is more united than ever and looks forward to standing behind a strong nominee in the mold of Scalia and Thomas,” said Jessica Echard, executive director of the Eagle Forum, whose leader Phyllis Schlafly was among the leaders of a withdrawal campaign announced Monday. “President Bush has done the right thing.”

Free Congress Foundation Chairman Paul M. Weyrich, who hosts weekly strategy sessions attended by conservative leaders and senators, House members and administration emissaries, also saw an opportunity for healing in the withdrawal.

“Harriet Miers’ nomination was most unfortunate,” Mr. Weyrich said. “It caused the president’s supporters to lose confidence in him, and he can’t afford that right now. He will now be able to restore that confidence by appointing a Scalia or Thomas, as he once promised — or he will lose on other fronts.”

Other party strategists echoed the view, saying the abrupt end to the Republican Party’s civil war over Miss Miers came not a moment too soon, allowing the White House to turn its attention to more politically pressing matters. Among them:

• Top White House aides, including Mr. Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, were the targets of a grand jury inquiry into the CIA leak case that could lead to indictments today.

• The Republican leadership in Congress also is under investigation — former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on money-laundering charges and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on accusations of insider stock trading.

• At the same time, Mr. Bush’s job-approval ratings have sunk to the mid- to low 40s, with some polls showing signs of erosion even among Republicans, as a result of public dissatisfaction over rising casualties in Iraq, gasoline prices, the economy and the overall direction of the country.

The Republican Congress’ approval ratings were even lower, in part because of the sharp increase in government spending during the five years of Mr. Bush’s presidency, opening up another battle with his conservative critics.

But yesterday, conservative leaders who had led the fight against Miss Miers said they were ready to put the judicial battle behind them and renew their support for Mr. Bush in preparation for the political and policy struggles ahead, including the vacancy on the high court.

“This is now a time for conservatives to reunite behind the president as he faces vital challenges at home and abroad and as he works to select a new nominee whom conservatives can endorse,” said Americans for Better Justice, a group of conservative leaders who were at the forefront of the lobbying campaign to force Miss Miers to withdraw.

Leonard A. Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society who angered some conservatives by taking a lead role in promoting Miss Miers, said he would “look forward to the nomination of another judicial conservative who shares the president’s philosophy that the role of courts is to interpret the law rather than make it up.”

There was a huge sigh of relief on Capitol Hill, where Republican officials said Miss Miers’ decision will help unite the party and put the president’s agenda back on offense.

Mr. Bush already has made new overtures to overcome conservative complaints on his agenda, including agreeing to meet conservative demands for big spending cuts to offset the recovery costs of Hurricane Katrina, Republican leadership officials said.

“The White House has begun shoring up its support among conservatives who have been upset with them. The president has been more forceful on spending issues, and that bodes well for his administration down the road,” said Ron Bonjean, chief spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

“They’ve been playing defense for so long on Harriet Miers that it’s great to see them pivoting and going on offense again on our issues,” he said.

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