Will Bush go to the mattresses?

In an earlier post, I pondered whether Republicans would have a voter turnout problem in 2006, given that the conservative base is so demoralized. President Bush could fix this with one swift move were he to go to the mattresses with his Supreme Court nomination, now that Miers has withdrawn. By going to the mattresses I mean appointing a clearly conservative judge who would trigger the all out brawl over judicial philosophy that the conservative legal community has been fantasizing about for decades. As I have said before, having appointed and then withdrawn Miers makes it more difficult for Bush to nominate a true conservative than if he had appointed one in the first place. Now, Democrats have more ammunition to smear any Bush nominee they don’t like by saying Bush caved in to the far right. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has already taken this line. “The radical right wing of the Republican Party killed the Harriet Miers nomination,” he said in a prepared statement. “Apparently, Ms. Miers did not satisfy those who want to pack the Supreme Court with rigid ideologues.”

Nothing would put conservatives in battle mode more than scenes of liberal senators “borking” an intelligent, well-qualified, conservative judge.

Andrew Sullivan takes a different view:

Bush may believe he needs to polarize the country to win back his base, especially if he’s reeling from indictments and a major staff turn-over. He has done it before; and he may do it again. For my part, I think the Rovians are misguided in this prescription. A socially conservative fire-breather is not what the country needs right now – and, although it may shore up the base, it will further rattle the middle. What we need is someone of Roberts’ ilk: impeccably qualified, intellectually serious, and concerned more with

judicial process than results. The fundamental concern the public now has about this administration is its competence. The Roberts and Bernanke picks are reassuring. The Miers pick, er, wasn’t. Excellence and judicial restraint should be the criteria: not ideology. They are the criteria upon which the right and center can converge. Here’s hoping.

I have a few responses to Sullivan. Firstly, I think that Roberts had a unique blend of conservative credentials, stellar qualifications, and a thin paper trail. It may be difficult to find somebody else with that rare combination of traits.

Then there’s Sullivan’s main point that a “socially conservative fire-breather” would “rattle the middle.” Sure, if President Bush nominates a clear conservative to the Supreme Court, moderates may be annoyed, but it won’t make or break their support for Bush. They will judge him on other issues. However, for many in the conservative base, the matter of judicial appointments is the issue that counts, and this issue will be the basis of how they view the president. If he appoints a true judicial conservative, they will defend Bush to the death, and should that nominee get confirmed, Bush would be their hero. He would be applauded by conservatives for “getting the big things right.” This would give Bush great leeway to appease moderates on other issues.