Maybe for a moment George Bush thought Bill Frist was calling late Wednesday evening to tell him he was quitting as Senate majority leader on account of his own deepening legal problems, stemming from insider stock deals.
But no, Frist was phoning about problems not his own. He told Bush that the conservative Republican mutiny over the Miers nomination had carried the day. The votes for Miers just weren’t there.
Thursday morning Bush called it quits, using executive privilege as the excuse. Supposedly at issue were disclosure requests for legal memos Miers had written as part her job as White House counsel.
At least, since night had fallen, Bush could be confident it wasn’t a call to tell him that the federal grand jury assembled at the US District Court had issued indictments against top White House aides Rove, Libby, Hadley, Hanna and Wurmser, with Cheney as unindicted coconspirator.
That treat, or portions of it, awaits Bush on Friday. If he has time for any political counsel Rove may have advised Bush it was better to throw the Miers bone to the Republican ultras today. Then to rally them to the President’s side over the weekend, when indictments may dominate the headlines and the Sunday talk shows.
The Miers fiasco seems to have been hatched in the private quarters of the White House, with Laura Bush edgy over the nomination of Roberts and pressing for Miers, a woman and a close friend who might have a flexible posture on Roe v Wade.
So Bush named his legal adviser in an effort at triangulation, meaning a political maneuver designed to neutralize the ultras in your own party. Clinton played this game time after time, reaching over the heads of the Democratic liberals to the right wing in both parties in Congress.
But maybe triangulation only works on Democrats, since the liberals will swallow anything, as Clinton’s victories from NAFTA to Welfare attest.
There are some things conservatives won’t swallow, even if it means humiliating a Republican president in desperate political straits.
Now what? Miers stays in the White House and works on the next nominee to the US Supreme Court.
The Republican conservatives, still resentful at having swallowed Roberts, want an ultra whose implacable enmity to abortion is etched in stone.
This could mean J. Michael Luttig or J. Harvey Wilkinson who both serve on the Fourth Circuit. Or Edith Jones, from the Fifth.
But the dilemma for all Republicans in touch with political reality is that the country as a whole does not want to see Roe v Wade overturned. The voters would exact terrible vengeance on the political party perceived as being responsible for ending choice in America.
A candidate “soft on choice” might be Alberto Gonzales, Miers’ predecessor in the White House and now Attorney General.
But then Bush would reignite conservative fury at a moment of extreme political weakness and also incur the charge of cronyism. Part of the Miers disaster was a failure to appreciate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that cronyism was in disrepute.
Bush, after five years, is now at the point Clinton reached in the early summer of his first year in office: a total collapse in political credibility. Clinton reached out to a Republican fixer, David Gergen, and to Jesse Helms’ campaign strategist, Dickie Morris, plus the most squalid denizens of his own party.
Who can Bush turn to?
The first lifeline would be a dishonorable mention of Dick Cheney in the grand jury’s indictment, prompting the all-powerful vice president to resign.
The path would then be clear for a return of the old guard, with James Baker the man who fixed Florida for Bush in 2001, as the Renovator. The corporate sponsorship of the White House would shift from Halliburton to the Carlyle Group.
It would be the Revenge of Bush 1, already heralded by the recent onslaughts on Cheney’s neocons by Brent Scowcroft and Powell’s number two, Lawrence Wilkerson. It’s a theme worthy of the great classical tragedians.