Returning to the fold

President Bush’s announcement yesterday nominating 3rd Circuit Judge Samuel A. Alito to take the place of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the United States Supreme Court has conservatives cheering — not because Alito was their choice but because he’s a clearly qualified nominee behind whom they can rally.

President Bush’s announcement yesterday nominating 3rd Circuit Judge Samuel A. Alito to take the place of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the United States Supreme Court has conservatives cheering — not because Alito was their choice but because he’s a clearly qualified nominee behind whom they can rally.

Bush had the luxury of choosing from among perhaps a dozen candidates, all of whom shared a generally conservative judicial philosophy, could lay claim to experience and intellectual excellence and had worked for decades in the judicial vineyards. Alito was the president’s choice from this group, and it is a good one.

He will not run the Senate gantlet easily, for far too much is at stake, but he will make it because he is qualified and will have the support not just of the president’s base in that body but of others as well who look to his record and get a chance to discuss his philosophy and record in the formal and informal meetings that will take place over the next few weeks.

The People for the American Way and groups of a similar ilk will rise from the fever swamps of the ideological left to spend millions trying to derail the nomination, and their friends in the Senate will rally to the cause, but they failed in their attempt to demonize John Roberts and will fail this time as well. They do, however, deserve some sort of award for the coordinated whining that followed the withdrawal of Harriet Miers last week which saw their toadies, such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D), bemoaning the influence of interest groups on the right on GOP Senators.

The president’s willingness to accept Ms. Miers’s withdrawal and his quick move to regain the offensive by naming Alito so quickly bodes well for his ability to regain the political offensive on other fronts. This all took place during what journalists were calling “the week from hell” for Bush and his administration. Commentator after commentator talked about the crippling impact of the Miers nomination, the mounting casualties in Iraq, the president’s seeming inability to do much about runaway federal spending and the end-of-the-week indictment of the vice president’s chief of staff.

It turns out that the president wasn’t nearly as “crippled” as his detractors hoped or the media reported. In naming Alito, he and his team managed quickly to make chicken salad out of whatever it was they had on hand, and they did it under great pressure when everyone seemed to believe they were under such fire that they’d be frozen in place or unable to make decent decisions.

They aren’t out of the woods yet, of course, but they’ve made a start and are demonstrating that while they may be down they are far from finished. The president’s poll numbers remain in the Dumpster and will for some time, but he’s got three years left as president, and in this city that amounts to several political lifetimes.

Conservative activists who were outraged by the Miers nomination are coming home and will give the president as much support as they ever have as long as they have a sense that he’s fighting for the values and goals that won him the presidency in the first place. By remaining silent in the past when they sensed the administration was off track, they weren’t doing the president or his team any favors because they serve in a very real sense to provide an early warning to a sensitive White House to problems developing within a president’s base out in the country.

The folks who work for Bush, like those who have toiled in the White House for previous presidents, tend to listen to their friends and exclude critics from their circle of friends. That can prove fatal because in politics isolation can lead to mistakes and eventually to failure, but it happens again and again. Presidents and their minions tell everyone they want the unvarnished truth, but what they really want is a slap on the back and the cheers of their friends, and that’s usually all they get.

I once worked for George W. Bush’s father and advised him on how he might improve his message as he sought the presidency. One day he called me in and asked me why it was that every time I saw him I kept pointing out problems and suggesting how he might do better. “You’re awfully negative,” he whined, “and should know that most people tell me I’m doing a great job as it is.”

That’s what politicians hear from most of their friends, but sometimes friendship requires more, and the son may be listening.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).