Embattled Bush takes safest route with Roberts
WASHINGTON – President Bush chose the path of least resistance in nominating John Roberts as chief justice, acting with unusual haste as the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina sap his political strength.He was the safest choice Bush could make.Roberts is a Washington insider well versed in the functions of the Supreme Court and the levers of power in Congress, an accomplished lawyer whose smile and sterling resume seem to take the sharp edges off his deeply conservative ideology.Liberal activists who opposed Roberts’ nomination to replace retiring justice Sandra Day O’Connor had found little in his record to suggest they could thwart that nomination.He will draw less partisan fire than two other candidates pushed by Bush’s conservative backers to succeed the late William H. Rehnquist – associate justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.While Roberts’ confirmation still seems likely, he may face a tougher road to confirmation because the position of chief justice will be held to a higher standard. Bush’s weakening political standing could complicate things for Roberts, according to strategists in both parties.Republican and Democratic strategists also agree that Bush will come under intense pressure now to name a woman or minority to replace O’Connor. It’s no small factor that flooding in New Orleans hit poor, black residents the hardest, raising questions about Bush’s sensitivity to minorities and the poor.”When Roberts’ record on civil rights is reviewed inside the Judiciary Committee, it’s going to sound more jarring post-Katrina than before the hurricane,” said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus. “America was reminded about the big issue out there that has not been openly addressed by the administration – economic disparity based on race.”Bush may also be boxed in ideologically – less inclined to nominate somebody as conservative or to the right of Roberts. But officials close to the White House predicted the president would pick a conservative in the mold of Roberts.”The fight is over the next one,” said Democratic consultant Nick Baldick. “Roberts is taking the Rehnquist voting slot and no one worried about him being much more conservative than Rehnquist.”Privately, several Republicans predicted Monday that Bush’s political stature will continue to decline as the Gulf Coast death toll mounts. That may make Roberts an easier target.But the real complications come later, when Bush turns to O’Connor’s seat.As one senior Republican put it: Weak presidents beget weak nominees. Whoever Bush selects next will be vulnerable because the president’s political troubles have grown since he first tapped Roberts. The officials, including two who are working closely with the White House on Supreme Court picks, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the process publicly.Democrats wondered why it took Bush less time to name Rehnquist’s replacement than it did to visit the Gulf Coast after Katrina hit.”This is about who will run the Supreme Court for the next generation and it looks like they rushed a decision together in a way that doesn’t look that thoughtful,” said Joe Lockhart, press secretary in the Clinton White House.Some Democrats urged Bush to delay the nomination process while he responds to Katrina, a not-too-subtle dig at his efforts thus far. “In the midst of a national disaster of biblical proportion,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said, “it is difficult for the American people to participate fully in the selection of the next chief justice.”In fairness to Bush, he had weeks to consider Roberts’ qualifications, and a summer spent in the spotlight turned up no warts on the nominee.”I think the public vetting proves that this guy is the real deal – bright, knows the issues and can leave a long-term imprint on the court because of his youth and intellect,” said Rick Davis, a GOP consultant.That is a major point that easily gets lost amid the politicking. Roberts, 50, could lead the nation’s judicial branch for a generation or more. He may be the last chief justice most Americans know.On top of that, O’Connor’s seat is a critical swing vote – and she may not be the last justice who leaves during Bush’s term.When voters re-elected Bush, they gave Republicans the keys to the future of the U.S. judiciary. Bush and his party control the Judiciary Committee and a solid majority of votes in the Senate. Nobody should be surprised that the Supreme Court, once a liberal bastion, will continue further down the conservative path plowed by Rehnquist himself.Vail, Colorado
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