Bush the Conservative v. Bush the Pragmatist
By Michael A.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005; A11
Since taking office, President Bush has heartened abortion opponents by signing a bill outlawing what they call "partial birth" abortions, curtailing federal funding for international organizations that offer abortion referrals and promoting what he calls a culture of life.
But after nominating White House counsel Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court last week, he was asked directly whether he wants Roe v. Wade , the Supreme Court opinion guaranteeing a right to abortion, to be overturned. His response was less than direct. "You know, I'm not going to interject that kind of issue in the midst of these hearings," Bush said.
It is an answer that not only speaks to the powerful passions and treacherous politics surrounding abortion, but also reveals a type of pragmatism Bush has exhibited throughout his political career. There is little doubt that Bush, as he noted last week, is "proudly" conservative. Domestically, he has cut taxes, limited stem cell research and advanced bold proposals to replace cherished government social programs with an ownership society that offers recipients both greater risks and greater rewards while curbing taxpayer outlays.
But Bush also describes himself as a "compassionate conservative," an ambiguous term aimed at appealing to voters turned off by what some saw as a harsh, confrontational conservatism of the past. Bush has opposed some affirmative action programs, while endorsing others. He has sharply increased federal spending on education and on health care, even while advocating smaller government. He has spoken out against gay marriage, but expended little political capital in pushing a constitutional amendment to outlaw it. In the wake of the sluggish federal response to Hurricane Katrina, he has pledged to spend "whatever it takes" to rebuild the Gulf Coast, while attacking the rampant poverty in the region.
His political sensibilities at times have left him reluctant to take the lead into pitched ideological battles, particularly around social issues, frustrating his staunchest supporters.
"I think Bush is a solid conservative in terms of his views, but above all else he is a coalition builder," said John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life. "The president is keenly aware that he has many parts to his coalition, some of whom don't see eye to eye with religious conservatives."
When it comes to abortion, one of the nation's most explosive topics, he has walked a fine line, touting his antiabortion sentiments while carefully acknowledging the national consensus for abortion rights. "I know good people disagree on this issue, but surely we can agree on ways to value life by promoting adoption and parental notification," Bush said at the 2000 Republican National Convention.
Bush's caution around the volatile issue is well founded, as polls have consistently found support for fundamental abortion rights, even while the public backs some efforts to restrict access to the procedure.
"I can think of nothing that would galvanize and anger a wide segment of the American public more than overturning Roe v. Wade ," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "I can't think of another issue that would generate as much intensity not only from the active left and feminists, but also from a lot of people in the middle."
In picking a successor to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a swing voter on the court, Bush had an opportunity to move the court decisively to the right, jeopardizing Roe as well as a host of issues from affirmative action to the power of the federal government to impose regulations on states. Bush had stoked conservative expectations by saying that he looked to the high court's most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, as models for his eventual nominees.
The White House
has dispatched surrogates to reassure mutinous conservatives who view Miers's
selection as a shocking mistake. They have described her as a born-again
Christian who will move the court to the right.
conservative skeptics are persuaded by the White House pitch. "They are
asking us to have faith and to support the nominee. But on the other hand they
are not giving us reason to do that other than saying 'trust the president,'
never a leader on controversial social issues,"