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Alito Puts Bush Back in the Game

The choice of Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court can be seen as the first day of the rest of President Bush's political life. This one decision may not be enough to reverse the president's declining fortunes, but it does recall the resolve he has shown in the past -- and that's a good place to begin.

In his campaigns and in office, this president has been at his best when beleaguered. Encircled by adversity, he turns to his core supporters for inspiration -- and fresh ammunition.

We can see this bounce back again in Alito's nomination, which has triggered a predictable left-right partisan split in the Senate and beyond. As a conservative with the firm convictions and intellectual firepower to move the court, Alito fills the bill as obviously as Harriet Miers (the previous nominee who withdrew Oct. 27) did not. Bush thought Miers would maintain the gender diversity of the court and so divide the Democrats more than the Republicans. But he failed to foresee the depth of disappointment among conservative opinion leaders. Alito provokes a very different kind of bloodletting, and it is the kind the president needs right now.

This is the donnybrook that Bush's conservative faithful have been spoiling for since the 1970s and counting on him to provide since he took office in 2001. These activists believe that with a foursquare social conservative to support, they can rally the America they know and complete the conversion of the high court. It is a victory so long and fervently desired that no confirmation ordeal is too daunting. Filibuster? Senate in turmoil? The prize is well worth the price.

Of course, the choice of Alito gives the president's opponents a galvanizing issue as well. It may even be secretly welcomed by anti-Bush entities that need to raise money and re-energize their rank and file.

In the weeks ahead, if Alito can be pegged as an enemy of Roe v. Wade, Democrats can at least fantasize about holding all 44 of their senators plus independent Jim Jeffords and a handful of Republicans who support abortion rights. That could make the outcome close.

Alternatively, Democrats can at least contemplate a filibuster, which Republicans would need 60 votes to stop. If they could not find the 60, of course, the GOP might try the parliamentary challenge to the filibuster that they talked about trying last spring. It's been called the "nuclear option," because if it worked it would end the presumptive right to filibuster and at the same time provoke a Senate rules crisis of major proportions.

All these scenarios remain plausible for the moment. But whatever Alito's fate, his nomination has already accomplished one important goal. By bringing the president's base back together, Alito bolsters the White House for all its other battles. And there are several looming.

Besides the overarching issue of the war in Iraq, there's a fresh fight brewing in the Senate over the failings of pre-war intelligence and widespread belief that the intelligence was manipulated. By highlighting those charges this week, Democrats in the Senate were also tapping into continuing interest in the work of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who has indicted Vice President Cheney's top aide and says he's not done. The indictment of Lewis Libby stemmed from his alleged efforts to discredit a former ambassador who had been saying the pre-war intelligence was phony.

Meanwhile, the president's allies on Capitol Hill are still struggling with leadership problems of their own. They also still need to revise the budget for this fiscal year to accommodate the costs of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Meanwhile, the Senate is threatening to lift limits on stem cell research and impose limits on techniques for interrogating prisoners in the war on terror. The president has said he would have to veto either action.

Confirming Alito will not settle any of these other pending matters. But getting all the pro-Bush forces back on the same side of scrimmage should get the president back in the game.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.