The Crisis of the Bush Code

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK

New York Times

October 9, 2005

WHEN Gov. George W. Bush of Texas hit the presidential campaign trail, he seldom brought up his view of abortion. But with conservative Christian crowds, he never missed an opportunity to praise "pregnancy crisis centers." Abortion opponents, knowing such centers steered women away from the procedures, cheered and took heart.

It was the beginning of a delicate balancing act that, until President Bush picked Harriet E. Miers for the Supreme Court last week, had enabled him to forge an unprecedented bond with social conservatives without unnerving more moderate voters. President Bush may have perfected it during the 2004 presidential debates. He said he would not appoint justices who would approve of the Dred Scott decision - the 19th-century fugitive slave case that abortion foes compare to Roe v. Wade - but also pledged not to make the abortion issue a "litmus test" for judicial nominees.

The nomination of Ms. Miers demonstrated the fragility of a coalition built in part on code. The administration relied on subtle clues about her evangelical faith and confidential conversations with influential conservative Christians to enlist grass-roots support for Ms. Miers.

Instead the Miers nomination has threatened to shatter the coalition that Mr. Bush and his adviser Karl Rove hoped would be the foundation of a durable Republican majority. Social conservatives say that Mr. Bush made them tacit promises to appoint justices who would rule their way on abortion and other social issues. They wanted a nominee with a clear record and Ms. Miers had none.

The Christian conservative backlash is upending the expected battle lines in the nomination debate. Several Republican senators - two of them, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, on the Judiciary Committee - say that unlike their stance during the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice, they are taking a wait-and-see stance on Ms. Miers. Even if their displays of caution prove to be short lived, some conservatives say the damage has already been done to Mr. Bush's Republican base. And at a time when polls show his approval rating hovering near its low point, the discontent of his most passionate supporters can only hasten the day when the term "lame duck" will apply.

Why would the social conservatives walk away from the president over a nominee he clearly admires?

Some on the right said the reaction reflected a growing discontent among conservatives with Mr. Bush even before he announced his selection over issues like federal spending, especially after Hurricane Katrina.

But the backlash from religious conservatives over Ms. Miers has deeper roots and threatens to become an even more serious rupture for Mr. Bush and his party. "The president has walked a fine line wanting to keep us inside the family," said the Rev. Donald Wildmon, founder of the evangelical conservative Ameri-can Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss. "But at the same time - I might as well say it - being embarrassed to be seen in public with us, and that is what we are seeing here." He added, "Republicans have a serious problem on their hands right now."

Conservative Catholics are a relatively new addition to the Republican coalition, and many evangelical Protestants were reluctant to engage in politics in the first place and they remain prone to fatalism about going to the polls, said Prof. John Green, who studies religion and politics at the University of Akron. President Bush's assiduous courtship helped bring evangelical voting rates above the overall average for the first time in 2004, but they still trail the participation of mainline Protestants and Jews, Professor Green said.

Some reasons for the discontent over Ms. Miers may go back to the pessimistic view many evangelicals hold about society and culture, Professor Green said. "They kind of expect to be betrayed," he said. "They see themselves as an embattled minority. They feel the culture is moving in the wrong direction and they are fighting an uphill battle to turn it around, but they half expect to lose."

Many Christian conservatives say Mr. Bush has proved his commitment to them by blocking federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, signing a partial birth abortion ban, calling for an amendment to stop same-sex marriage, and most of all naming conservative judges. "Social conservatives say who drives the bus," said Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But some say they remain suspicious of Mr. Bush for failing to take up the federal marriage amendment again after the election. "Some of us believe that the Republics and the White House are running away from the thing," Mr. Wildmon said.

Many social conservatives are still smarting from their disappointments with President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Justice Anthony Kennedy and President George H. W. Bush's nomination of Justice David Souter. In both cases, they say, conservatives trusted Republican presidents and the nominees ruled in favor of abortion from the bench. "People put their hands on the stove and got burned and now they see the stove coming at them again," said David Barton of the evangelical group WallBuilders.

And there was also pent-up aggression left over after the relatively uncontroversial confirmation of Chief Justice Roberts. Many conservative groups - especially those who rely on direct-mail fundraising - say they were disappointed that the administration did not pick a nominee with a clearer record, or at least pick a fight with the Democrats over why to confirm him.

"A whole lot of evangelical conservatives were eager for a rumble, to really fight it out with the devilish Dems," said Marvin Olasky, editor in chief of the evangelical magazine World and a former adviser to President Bush.

Perhaps anticipating concerns over Ms. Miers, Mr. Rove, the president's top political adviser, called several of the most prominent conservative Christians - including James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family and Mr. Land of the Southern Baptist Convention - before her selection was announced to enlist their support. Dr. Dobson has subsequently raised eyebrows by saying repeatedly that he is supporting her in part because he has received certain confidential information that he cannot divulge. They and other allies like Charles Colson have come out in her defense.

But in Web sites and talk radio shows, the grass-roots conservative backlash continued to flare. "It is a pretty good fissure," said David Barton of WallBuilders. "It has resulted in shouting matches between friends who have been part of the same movement for 20 years."

In its efforts to quell the revolt from its base, the administration has come increasingly close to characterizing Ms. Miers's views. This carries its own political risks as well, including energizing liberal opponents.

Thursday afternoon, White House aides enlisted Dr. Dobson, Mr. Land and others in a conference call to explain their support for the nomination to uneasy conservatives around the country. Dr. Dobson assured them he was convinced she was an opponent of abortion.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, said he wanted her on the court for an upcoming partial birth abortion case. And Mr. Land asserted that both the president and Ms. Miers would consider it "a deep personal betrayal" if she ruled against his expectations.

Democrats and liberal groups, eager to paint Ms. Miers as a darling of the right, have quickly seized on the administration's efforts. On Friday, the liberal group People for the American Way began disseminating a transcript of the conservative conference call to its own allies and Democratic aides. And Democratic Senators have started a steady drumbeat of calls for Dr. Dobson to disclose whatever he has been told. Mr. Olasky said the stakes of the Supreme Court nomination limit the effectiveness of what he called Mr. Bush's "secret language."

"The left is picking up the signals," he said. "They are starting to get alarmed."

That, however, might not be all bad, he said. "It would actually help if the left was alarmed. That could heal the rift on the right."