Bush Picks Conservative for High Court
ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
Samuel Alito is the president's new nominee to the US Supreme Court. The Bush White House hopes this announcement will get the president and his administration back on track after a very tumultuous week, a week that ended with one key member of the White House facing criminal charges and another still under scrutiny. Joining us from Washington for the latest with the Bush administration are NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams and Professor Ron Walters of the University of Maryland.
Gentlemen, I thank you both for joining us. Juan, let me start with you. The idea of the announcement today, some will say this timing was, quite frankly, planned to take away some of the light and heat that the White House was receiving from Friday's indictment.
JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:
I don't think there's any question about that, Ed, and more to the point, in terms of the political dynamic, it's intended to really stir the right-wing base that the president had lost to some extent with his nomination of Harriet Miers, the White House counsel, the president's counsel, to be the Supreme Court nominee. She ran into a wave of criticism from the right, and now you have Sam Alito, and Judge Alito is a guy that the conservative right embraces. This is an opportunity for him to say to that base, `I've got the right candidate. Get behind this candidate.' And what we're seeing already off of Capitol Hill is a big fight stirring with Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate saying, `Don't nominate Alito' to the president yesterday. Lindsey Graham, a conservative senator, Republican from South Carolina, saying that he would break apart from the group of 14 that had prevented the filibuster and made a deal before to get some of the president's conservative judicial nominees in place. So what you see is a fight, a terrifically large fight brewing, and that does help the White House in the sense of re-establishing its connection with that right-wing base.
GORDON: Ron Walters, what does your political compass tell you as relates to this nomination? Juan already suggested that Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, has suggested we're going to see a big fight out of this. Some have already suggested that we, in fact, are seeing yet another misstep by the White House by not picking someone who is a bit more moderate.
Professor RON WALTERS (University of Maryland): Well, I would certainly agree with Juan that this is shaping up to be a fight, primarily because you've got someone here who has a previous record, a long track record, and the paper trail, of course, is going to be gone over and they're going to look at it with respect to issues like abortion, and he's already on record as having participated in a decision on abortion that confirmed the right of a husband in Pennsylvania to be notified before a wife had one. So that's already sort of wakened up a lot of people to the fact that here is someone going on the court who may participate in the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. I would think that this is going to be--given Charles Schumer's also jumping into this, I would think that this could be the kind of nomination that could trigger a potential filibuster by the Democrats. I mean, we could be right back at the so-called nuclear option that put together this group of 14 in the first place. So that I would expect that there are others in this group of 14 that are going to peel away, and what you'll have at the end of the day then is that monumental standoff again.
GORDON: Juan, what do you expect to hear from the African-American community, by extension the civil rights community, the Congressional Black Caucus and others from a man, this nominee, who has been dubbed by the media and others as `Scalito' or Scalia-lite, suggesting that his judicial philosophy is aligned with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, many suggest the furthest to the right of all Supreme Court justices?
WILLIAMS: We don't know a lot yet, Ed. We have--the record hasn't been fully reviewed in terms of his civil rights record, but what is clear is that if you look at, for example, Harriet Miers, just at the end there, the moment when she was being pulled, right before then, some speeches came out in which she spoke positively about affirmative action. And many on the right said that was a killing blow for her.
And if you think back, of course, to the man who is now the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, one of the criticisms of Alberto Gonzales from the right was that in his rulings as a judge in Texas on a Texas Supreme Court, he had been pro-affirmative action, in addition to which they had some problems with questions about his stand on abortion rights. And, of course, they were looking equally so at looking at winks and nods to try to get the idea where Harriet Miers stood on abortion rights.
Well, they don't have to look for any winks and nods with Sam Alito. As you just heard from Ron Walters, you know, Alito's rulings in Pennsylvania have been such that he wanted a woman's husband to be informed before a woman could have an abortion. So they know that one. But the question where he stands on civil rights, I think, is still pending, and if you look at the entirety of his record, though, it's without a doubt 100 percent conservative, which is why you hear Ron Walters talking about the filibuster threat again. We're really right back where we were in terms of a mess approaching with this nomination and--but the thing is, it may be pleasing to the White House. This may be just what they want at a moment when you've got these indictments, when you've got the president's approval ratings down at the bottom, you know, historically, when you've got an unpopular war. This will rally the base.
Prof. WALTERS: This is a very good point, let me just say--jump in here real quick. There are a lot of Republican advisers who have told the White House that what they really need now for the president to pull out of this slump and to begin to exercise leadership again is one hell of a fight, and I think that that's maybe the strategy here.
GORDON: Let me ask this, Ron, and, Juan, please pick up on the back end of it, this can either be, as Juan suggested, exactly what the White House needs or, conversely, one of those missteps that this president may not be able to recover from, juxtaposed to and/or with all of the other faux pas that, frankly, the White House has made over the course of the last month or so. Ron, is that overstating the case, or can it be that dangerous for this White House?
Prof. WALTERS: Well, you know, I think a lot depends upon the Democratic Party's response. I looked at the split in the Democrats in the Senate who--22 of them voted for now Chief Justice Roberts; 22 of them voted against. Of the 22 who voted for him, fully half of those--half of those--were in states that George Bush won handily in 2004. There is an element here, then, of this where he does exercise some coattail effect over Democrats, and so it'll be interesting to see if the Democrats in the Senate can pull their party together and really fight, 'cause a lot of what you're saying really depends upon them.
WILLIAMS: Well, I think that it's unlikely, with Samuel Alito as the nominee, that you're going to get--I don't think you're going to get 22 Democrats to vote for him because while he does have an extensive record--he's been on the court a long time--what you get here is someone who is almost a doctrinaire conservative. So if this is the person to replace Sandra Day O'Connor as the swing vote on the court, a lot of key cases are going to now turn to the right, and I would anticipate that would include not only abortion but civil rights. So you're going to get a big fight, and of course, it comes at a very difficult time for this president, and I don't think--remember, the president has been weakened by the Miers fight. No matter what you thought about Miers, what it says is that this is a president who put up a nominee; the nominee was not successful.
So now you come into a question of, well, how long will it take to get Samuel Alito confirmed, if that's to be? And the schedule is really difficult. The president is leaving the country soon. He's going to go down to South America. He's got a trip coming up to Asia. We've got the holidays coming. So--and I think you've got a fight brewing here. So what you're looking at is then a protracted nomination--excuse me, confirmation process that could extend into January and leave Sandra Day O'Connor on the bench for much of that time. I think that this is--from the president's, from the White House's perspective, it may look appetizing now to get the fight in place, to say, `We got, you know, a good conservative. Come on, conservatives. Come back home to President Bush.' But he can't afford a loss. Boy, a loss would be devastating to him in his weakened state, and so that's the other end of it, Ed, you know.
WILLIAMS: I mean, it looks good on the front end, but it could be a problem on the back end.
GORDON: And, Ron, if this, in fact, is protracted and the scrutiny continues of Karl Rove, I would suspect the White House would never want those two roads to meet.
Prof. WALTERS: No, and I think that it may be protract--now the president wants this done by the end of the year, and so I think that the instructions going out to the Judiciary Committee is to get this thing moving and let's see if we can get it done. But I agree with Juan. I don't know quite how somebody with 15 years on the federal bench in terms of his paper trail, you can squeeze that into a month or six weeks, especially with the president--actually with his attention elsewhere. So that's going to be very difficult to do. I think it's going to be protracted. I think as long as it's protracted, that gives the Democrats some traction and I think that that's going to feed into this whole drama about Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, the war. And so to that extent, I think you've got two things sort of running side by side that I think you're going to continue to depress the president's favorability rating for some time to come.
GORDON: Juan, with about a minute left, we talked about the stumbling of the White House, but as we have noted on this program, the Democrats have not been able to gain any traction, quite frankly, over the course of the last six months. Do you anticipate a more unified approach from Democrats with this fight?
WILLIAMS: Oh, without a doubt, and I think that's why I say at the moment, the president is low. The question is, what does he do? Now we've seen the Alito nomination as one step. Then there's legislation that he could put in place, and lots of people are talking about things like immigration legislation, going back in terms of tax cuts, that kind of thing. But I don't--I see the Democrats now also revived. I mean, the president may revive the right wing; he has revived the Democrats because they're going to have to stand together. The president has 55 votes in the Senate if he gets every Republican, but there are, you know, 44 Democrats, and he needs some of those Democrats to get more than 60 votes needed to block a filibuster. I don't know if he's going to be able to do it.
GORDON: All right. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams and Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. I thank you both for joining us today. Appreciate it.
Prof. WALTERS: Good to be with you.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome.
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