The Supreme Court perception game

The White House wants you to know that it's pushing back against the religious right on the question of Sandra Day O'Connor's replacement.

Published July 6, 2005 1:11PM (EDT)

White House officials and representatives of the Republican leadership in Congress have a three-word message for the people responsible for putting them in power: Shut up already.

According to today's New York Times, leaders of the religious right are being told to chill out -- ease up on Albert Gonzales, cool the talk of a culture war, stop bringing up issues like abortion and gay marriage -- while George W. Bush takes his time about announcing his pick to replace Sandra Day O'Connor.

It's not that Bush won't do the religious right's bidding when he names O'Connor's replacement; he's always done so before, and there's a lot of reason to think he'll do so again. But after five years in office -- after the Terri Schiavo debacle -- the Bush team may finally be figuring out that it's not always a good thing to be seen as so thoroughly beholden to the religious right. There's a political balance to be struck now. If Bush ends up nominating Alberto Gonzales, he'd prefer that the Gary Bauers and James Dobsons of the world hadn't galvanized Christianist opposition to such a nomination in advance. If he doesn't choose Gonzales, he'd prefer not to have every newspaper article about his nomination begin with some variation on the words, "Under pressure from his base to replace Sandra Day O'Connor with a more conservative jurist categorically opposed to abortion rights, George W. Bush passed over Alberto Gonzales and picked . . . ."

Does this sort of perception game matter? Of course it does. Just ask yourself this: How is it that, over the last few days, you've found yourself wondering whether Alberto Gonzales would be such a bad justice after all?

The White House and the Republican leaders understand the game, and they're usually pretty good at playing it. So somehow, at the very moment that the president himself speaks out against "special interest groups" on "the extremes," the New York Times finds itself the recipient of leaks from this series of conference calls between Washington Republicans and leaders of the religious right. The press and the blogs will play up the notion that there's a fight between Bush and his base over O'Connor replacement, but we're betting that's exactly the story line the White House wants to have out there right now. Given the constant communication between Bush administration officials and leaders on the religious right, we can assume that, if the White House wanted to pass along a request to cool the rhetoric, it could have done so without a sea of leaks to the New York Times, a statement from the president and on-the-record quote from Bill Frist's chief of staff, who told the Times that all the "extremism of language, if there is to be any, should be demonstrably on the other side. The hysteria and the foaming at the mouth ought to come from the left."

Some of the usual foamers are bristling at the request -- or, at least, making a good show of bristling in order to help Bush achieve the separation from the right he'll need to sell the kind of nominee they want on the bench. When Gary Bauer tells the Times that the administration "shouldn't be reluctant to talk about the values we hope the nominee will embrace," it's all part of the stage show, and guys like Bauer -- knowingly or not -- are just playing their roles.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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