‘Rudderless White House’ Fights Miers’ Choppy Seas

Times Staff Writers

The Bush White House is not supposed to work like this.

The nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court has gotten off to a stumbling start that bears little resemblance to the president’s first-term performance of pursuing major goals with discipline, focus and a united party behind him.

Nearly three weeks after President Bush chose Miers, her prospects for confirmation are clouded by opposition from conservative activists that is not waning, questions about her qualifications that remain unanswered, and lukewarm support even from strong Bush loyalists in the Senate.

White House officials and their allies had taken comfort from the fact that the loudest criticism of Miers’ selection came from conservative activists outside the Capitol -- not from the senators who would vote on the nomination.


But that security blanket began to fray this week as one of her most important Senate allies, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), publicly rebuked Miers for giving what were called inadequate responses to a questionnaire, and disputed her account of what she told him in a private meeting.

Other Republicans are mostly withholding public judgment until she testifies at confirmation hearings that are scheduled to begin Nov. 7. But privately, some expressed surprise and unease at how poorly prepared the White House was for the skepticism Miers encountered. And they lamented that Bush had failed to find a nominee who would help unite and energize a party demoralized by troubles in Iraq, high gas prices and criticism of Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

“What did he do in the middle of all this gloominess?” asked a senior Senate Republican aide who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the White House. “He just blotted out the sun.”

Some analysts and Republicans say the string of setbacks that have beset the nomination is a testament to how unhinged the White House has become amid legal and political problems, including the criminal investigation into the possible roles of two key administration aides -- Karl Rove and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby -- in the unmasking of a covert CIA operative.

“You’re seeing evidence of a profoundly disorganized and demoralized White House,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who has also spent time working on the Senate staff. “If you are looking for evidence of a rudderless White House, the slipshod manner in which Harriet Miers’ papers were prepared is really Exhibit A.”

But White House officials insist all is business as usual, and Bush on Thursday again defended his selection of a “competent, strong, capable woman who shares the same judicial philosophy that I share.”

And though he sounds less confident about Miers’ prospects than before, conservative activist Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, nonetheless asserted Thursday, “I think we’ve turned a corner.” Sekulow, who is advising the White House on the nomination, added, “It’s become abundantly clear that the president is not going to withdraw this nominee and Harriet Miers is not going to withdraw her nomination. “

At this point, a critical calculation for the White House is not whether Miers will gain the support of the nation’s conservative leaders, it is whether she can persuade a much smaller audience -- the 100 members of the Senate who would vote on her confirmation.

Although senators of both parties have studiously avoided saying publicly how they would vote, aides say that at least for the moment, the vast majority of the chamber’s Republicans are prepared to support her, however half-heartedly. So are a number of Democrats, almost certainly giving her the 51 votes she would need for confirmation.

The one thing that could sway that balance, Democrats and Republicans agree, is her performance during confirmation hearings.

“The only thing that’s going to be fatal to this nomination is how she performs before the committee,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a senior Judiciary Committee member.

“If she performs all right, then she’s obviously going to be approved. But if she doesn’t perform well, she probably won’t be approved,” Grassley said. “Between now and then, it doesn’t really matters what happens.”

Miers’ performance in the hearings is especially important because, unlike Bush’s first Supreme Court pick, John G. Roberts Jr., she does not begin the process with strong ties to many senators, nor has she been buoyed by early pronouncements of enthusiastic support.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), on the day of Roberts’ selection, pronounced the nominee “brilliant” and one of the “best and the brightest.” Weeks after Miers’ nomination, Santorum remains noncommittal.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) this week called Miers’ nomination a “challenge.”

“People are asking so many questions, and the answers are not there yet,” Frist said.

The mixed reaction among Senate Republicans is in striking contrast to the remarkable party unity that they showed for most Bush initiatives during his first term, when his agenda of tax cuts, Medicare drug benefits, the war in Iraq and his judicial nominees inspired enthusiastic support from all but a handful of Republicans in Congress.

And for an administration that has prided itself on being run with CEO-style rigor and discipline, the nomination has been hampered by uncharacteristic missteps.

Administration officials acknowledge that they were caught by surprise by the deluge of criticism from activists on the right who thought her record did not demonstrate a clear and strong commitment to conservative principles. By contrast, when Roberts was nominated, he was warmly embraced by GOP activists -- in part because White House operatives and allies conducted a behind-the-scenes campaign to win the allegiance of conservatives who might have favored a more stridently conservative nominee.

Miers’ early encounters with Specter and the Judiciary Committee were surprisingly gaffe-plagued for a nominee hailed as meticulous and conscientious.

After Specter told reporters that she supported two Supreme Court rulings on contraception and the right to privacy, Miers appeared to backtrack and asked Specter to retract his comment. He did so, but in a manner that made clear he did not believe he had been mistaken about what she had said.

After promising to return her Judiciary Committee questionnaire in three days, she took nearly a week. Among her disclosures: She temporarily lost her law license in the District of Columbia because she had failed to pay her dues. And the rest of her responses were so spotty that Specter and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary panel’s top Democrat, sent it back to her for further work.

Jeff Peck, who was Democratic counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee during several controversial Supreme Court nomination fights, said the omissions reflected badly not just on Miers but on how the White House was handling her nomination.

“You can’t put all the blame just on her doorstep, because there are a lot of people who can assist in putting together the basic stuff you do for a questionnaire,” said Peck.

Speaking to reporters Thursday after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Bush said he was not letting the furor surrounding Rove or Miers distract him from pressing domestic and international priorities such as the Middle East peace process, hurricane response and recovery efforts, and the U.S. economy.

“There’s some background noise here, a lot of chatter, a lot of speculation and opining,” he said. “But the American people expect me to do my job, and I’m going to.”

Times staff writer Warren Vieth contributed to this report.