Conservatives Assuaged by Alito Nomination

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Conservatives are claiming victory in the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito, after having revolted against President Bush's choice of Harriet Miers. National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson looks at the pull of conservatives at a particularly bad time for the Bush administration.


Judge Samuel Alito's fellow conservatives are thrilled with his nomination, those same conservatives who had been in open revolt against the nomination of Harriet Miers. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson examines what's happened to the president's relationship with this influential segment of his base now that the conservatives have a nominee they can support.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

The conservative magazine National Review helped lead the revolt that forced Harriet Miers to withdraw. And senior editor, Ramesh Ponnuru, is not shy about claiming victory, particularly now that the right got what it wanted, a nominee in the mold of Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

Mr. RAMESH PONNURU (Senior Editor, National Review): A lot of us on the right had serious concerns about the Miers nomination and, in the end, by expressing those concerns and persuading other people to share them we won.

LIASSON: Two weeks ago, Ponnuru described the Miers nomination as the moment he and other conservatives mentally filed for divorce from President Bush. Is he ready to renew his vows today? Not completely.

Mr. PONNURU: I think that he has gone a long way to correcting the mistake, but we are not at the status quo ante, that the president's astonishing poor judgement in nominating Harriet Miers is going to have a legacy and it means that the president cannot count on the automatic support of conservatives. He cannot simply say `Trust me.'

LIASSON: Or as another conservative put it, `We're willing to follow the president as long as he leads us in a direction we want to go.' And in that sense, the conservative revolt will make it easier for Democrats to portray the president as a weak leader who kowtows to the right. David Frum, a former speech writer for President Bush, raised money to put anti-Miers commercials on the air. He says he's thrilled to be able to wholeheartedly support Sam Alito. But he says there's no question that doubts about President Bush will linger.

Mr. DAVID FRUM (Former Speech Writer, President Bush): The Miers nomination was a mistake that called into question the way the president makes his decisions, and it raised the question: Does he take enough care? Does he do enough preparatory work? And those are questions that have been asked by many of the president's opponents, and the president just forced his supporters to confront that question.

LIASSON: Some Republicans, like Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, have said that soon no one will remember the name Harriet Miers. But many conservatives agree there will be some scars. Conservative Hugh Hewitt, a law professor, blogger and talk show host, led the fight to keep Miers' nomination alive. He says the tactics that the anti-Miers forces used will have lasting and negative consequences.

Professor HUGH HEWITT (Blogger, Talk Show Host): We abandoned some arguments in the course of the Miers' three weeks which were very valid, very useful arguments that are more difficult to make use of because now there are contradictory arguments made by Republicans and conservatives. That is a very slippery slope, and we're on it.

LIASSON: Before Miers, Hewitt points out, conservatives argued that every nominee deserves an up or down vote; that a nominee's ideology and religion should be off limits, and that the White House should not turn over documents.

Prof. HEWITT: The conservative intellectual argument was go back to pre-Bork, depoliticize. Well, they didn't depoliticize, some of them. And some of them, like my friend David Frum, went so far as to raise $300,000 to put ads on television.

LIASSON: And the intra-party fight over Miers unleashed other criticisms of Bush administration policies, particularly about the deficit and the lack of restraint on spending. Since the Miers' fight, conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives succeeded in forcing their leadership to reverse course and consider deep spending cuts to finance hurricane relief. Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, thinks that effort was aided by the break over Miers.

Mr. BILL KRISTOL (Editor, Weekly Standard): The revolt on spending, led by Mike Pence in the House, began before the Miers nomination. It probably got a little more steam from the sense among conservatives that it was legitimate, perhaps, to question the president once he made the Miers nomination and once people decided it wasn't a good idea. In general, in a second term, you're going to have more senators and congressmen thinking for themselves. In general, if a president's poll numbers go down, you're going to have more congressmen and senators and, I suppose, outside activists, too, making their own cases. That's fine. That's what happens in a second term and, in a way, it's healthy anyway I would say for a conservative movement or for a political party.

LIASSON: It may be healthy for conservatives, but it will make like a little more difficult for a second-term president with more than three years left in office. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can find all of NPR's coverage of the Alito nomination at npr.org.

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