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Miers: The Political Fallout

The week went from bad to worse for the Bush White House this morning when Harriet Miers asked the president to withdraw her Supreme Court nomination.

President Bush is in Florida today, but House and Senate Republican leaders met with him yesterday. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) attended that meeting. No mention was made of withdrawing the Miers nomination, according to informed sources, although planning for her potential confirmation fight was a topic of discussion. Several high-level Republican sources said today that the Bush White House was not caught by surprise by her decision.

Miers's departure comes 24 hours before special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is expected to announce the results of his investigation into the 2003 leak of a CIA operative's name to the news media -- with the potential that one or more high-ranking White House officials could be indicted.

That coincidence of timing led Republican operatives to wonder whether White House insiders know something about the outcome of the leak investigation.  "It wouldn't surprise me if the White House timed this to overshadow -- or at least compete with -- indictments today," said one high-level Republican consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the delicateness of the matter. "Even if the indictments come tomorrow, it's still smart timing because it divides the chattering class, weekend talk show focus between the open Supreme Court seat and the indictments, rather than spending all Sunday morning on the indictments."

One senior Republican rejected that analysis, arguing: "[The White House does] not know what is going to happen on the leak and I think whoever said that is just plain wrong."  The source added that by "cutting losses now, and any more that might come on the CIA [leak investigation], allows the White House to turn the corner unfettered by excess baggage."

Regardless of why the announcement was made today, Miers's decision was immediately interpreted by many in the Republican establishment as another blow to a faltering White House. One Republican lobbyist called the withdrawal "a statement of presidential weakness."

The source painted the move as a cave by the president to the conservative wing of the party, which had expressed growing disgruntlement with the choice of Miers, who, they argued, had an insufficient record to justify Bush's contention that she would be a conservative Supreme Court justice.

"Having taken the criticism -- and on the verge of the pending legal investigation resolution -- this smacks of being pushed around by Phyllis Schlafly," the source said. "For a president famous for being resolute -- this is wrong."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) echoed that view in a statement this morning. "The radical right wing of the Republican Party killed the Harriet Miers nomination," he said.

Brian Jones, the Republican National Committee's communications director, acknowledged that the "political atmospherics in Washington, D.C. are not ideal" at the moment, but he pivoted to argue that on issues voters really care about -- the state of the economy and foreign affairs -- the Bush administration remains on target. "Some of these larger events that all have a terminal date are superseding them right now," Jones said.

A House Republican strategist expressed a decided lack of concern about the impact of Miers's withdrawal on the the party's strength heading into the 2006 elections. "Who cares?" said the source. "Two months from now whoever the next nominee is is going to be sitting on the court. This stuff is happening 13 months from the election."

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 27, 2005; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Politics and the Court  
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