Often times, the best way out of a losing argument is to talk about something else. That's why this week's Senate hearings on John Roberts' nomination as chief justice are a godsend for President Bush, his beleaguered administration and their allies in Congress.
The White House & Company have spent two weeks struggling to turn the Hurricane Katrina story around — or at least to blunt its wounding edge. This misdirected effort ended this week with two symbolic statements. The first came with the resignation of Michael Brown, the woebegone director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The second, a day later, came directly from Mr. Bush:
"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," said the president, sounding humbler and less impatient than he had since the crisis began. In contrast to the past two weeks, he did not try to brighten the dismal picture of relief and recovery to date.
The new posture of contrition will not satisfy the president's critics, of course, but it does clear the air a bit. This, in turn, allows some breathing room for another story that Mr. Bush badly needs the country to hear. And that story is John Roberts.
In Roberts, the president has made perhaps his most fortuitous pick for a key office since he took the oath in 2001. The combination of his ultra-keen intellect, winning smile and impeccable conservative credentials has assured his confirmation. Watching him out-maneuver the lawyer-laden committee this week has been like watching Roger Federer slice through the mere mortals of professional tennis.
Roberts will never be acceptable to liberal activists. His views, coupled with another round of White House stonewalling on records, may well cost him the votes of the Judiciary Committee's Democrats.
But he is clearly acceptable to most Senate Democrats, and even those who do oppose him will do nothing to interfere seriously with his confirmation. The Democrats are saving their heavier, costlier weapons (including the filibuster) for the next nominee, the one who will take Sandra Day O'Connor's seat.
So the hearings this week have the smell of a done deal. But they are still important politically. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and its horrific aftermath, these hearings are Mr. Bush's best opportunity in many weeks to refocus national attention on what he has done right. And doing so is crucial to the long-term goals this White House still hopes to achieve.
That includes tax cuts, changes in Social Security and a new approach to immigration. And it includes the creation of a national Republican majority built to last well beyond this presidency.
Roberts will be the star of this week in history and his confirmation later this month should maintain his momentum. His ascent to the center seat of the high court is the perfect point on which the administration can pivot from the disappointments of recent weeks and months to a more promising future — for several reasons. Let's look at two.
First, the Roberts nomination re-energies the Bush base, which has shown signs of erosion under waves of Iraq fatigue and high energy prices. A slight softening among core supporters has been part of the president's declining approval rating, which is at a low ebb now in most major national surveys.
All summer the news has been discouraging and the White House has at times seemed dispirited. Will we get out of Iraq before support for the mission collapses? Will the cost of gas alienate low-income conservatives who have stuck with Bush in bad times past? Will energy costs stunt economic growth and bring recession back?
Roberts provides a moment in which all these doubts can be set aside. Because nothing matters more to the president's base among social conservatives than the courts — most particularly the Supreme Court. The president has vowed to appoint only conservatives who are dedicated to reclaiming the courts for the cause of traditionalism, and his supporters expect nothing less. Seeing John Roberts parrying questions from Edward Kennedy gives them confidence their faith in Mr. Bush is well placed.
The second reason Roberts' nomination is such a respite for Bush is that it puts a new and more appealing face on his administration. At the moment, most of America has seen enough of the Michaels — Brown and Chertoff — who are most associated with the federal response to Katrina.
Even before Brown's resignation, Chertoff had become the more familiar federal storm spokesman in his role as secretary of homeland security. While he projects competence and assurance, he also resembles a hollow-eyed and haunted survivor of hard times. By comparison, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld seem downright avuncular.
Roberts is a fresh breeze with intense (almost eerie) blue eyes, hyper-Harvard smarts and a handsome family. Most important to conservatives, he carries their message in a manner that seems both direct and inoffensive. This week's hearings are the kind of show the White House should wish it could have on every week — all year long.