Political Impact of a White Male Supreme Court Nominee
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Samuel Alito's record on abortion is one reason conservatives have rallied behind the new nominee. With this pick, President Bush appears to have reassured his political base. He may also have lost a chance to reach out to other voters when he abandoned the idea of choosing a woman or minority for the court. Joining me now for some analysis is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.
JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:
Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: The president was under pressure to select a woman to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. In the end, he has now picked a white male instead. What happened?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, if you think about it, it was really the failure of the nomination of that woman, Harriet Miers, the president's White House counsel, that led to the selection of Samuel Alito, because Alito was one of two runners-up who were both white males--Michael Luttig, who is on the 4th Circuit, a former Scalia clerk, and Alito. Mrs. Bush had of course put pressure on the president by publicly calling for the nomination of a woman. The Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, has also suggested that. In fact, Ken Salazar, a Democrat senator from Colorado, has called the selection of a white male, Judge Alito, a profound retreat for women's rights in the country.
MONTAGNE: Well, two white males as finalists. Were there any minority candidates among the slightly longer list of finalists?
WILLIAMS: There were, Rene. You had two Hispanics. Of course Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, who had been in consideration since Judge Roberts was selected to be the chief justice. But also you had Emilio Garza of the 5th Circuit. And in terms of African-Americans, you had two: Larry Thompson, who's now at Pepsico, as their general counsel, the former deputy attorney general, and Janice Rogers Brown who's on the US Court of Appeals. But in terms of that very short list, you really didn't have anybody who had been vetted and who was right there once the Miers nomination failed.
MONTAGNE: Juan, at the beginning of the second term, not even a year ago, the White House was talking about expanding its political base, reaching out to women, African-Americans, Hispanics. How did picking a Hispanic or woman for the high court fit into that strategy?
WILLIAMS: Well, it was part of an effort, Rene, to create what the White House political strategists thought was a permanent Republican majority in the country. You've got Hispanics now as the largest minority group in the country and of course they have growing political clout in states with tremendous electoral clout, states like Florida, California, and Texas. So the idea was if you could reach out to Hispanics, if you could make a gesture to them, you could really bring them into the Republican fold. But what we see is that already you're hearing people say--including people like Hector Flores, who's head of the League of United Latin American Citizens--that `the White House is intent on our votes, but not in terms of acting in our interests.' And so he was very upset that a Hispanic was not selected, that he was not consulted about this choice. Similarly, the head of the NAACP, Bruce Gordon, said he was upset that he hadn't been consulted about bringing a minority, an African-American, into the selection process.
MONTAGNE: Well, it would seem that those plans are on hold now as we proceed, at least in terms of the Supreme Court.
WILLIAMS: Absolutely. So what you get is, though, a president who's under political pressure. Right now you have a case where something like 55 percent of Americans are telling USA Today/CNN in a poll that the presidency is a failure, the Bush presidency is a failure. And if you look at the largest voting bloc of Americans, people who are self-identified as moderates, it's about 2-to-1 that they say they disapprove of the way the president is handling his job at the moment. So given that situation, I think the president felt that he needed to rally his political base and that's what he's doing.
MONTAGNE: So how important of a role then will Republican moderates play in this confirmation fight coming up in the Senate?
WILLIAMS: Rene, right now Republican moderates are the ball game, and that's where you see the focus of attention coming from Judge Alito, as he visits senators on Capitol Hill. It's the pressure coming from the White House, from the special interest groups who are putting ads on television. You have a great deal of attention being paid to the likes of Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins of Maine. But, you know, it's also the case that you have some Republican moderates, people like Arlen Specter, who's chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, John Warner of Virginia, people who believe in the right to abortion, and Judge Alito is going to have to make a pitch to those people. So those are all Republican moderates and the White House needs their votes.
MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.
NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.
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