Faced with a choice of Biblical proportions, America's born-again president decided to sacrifice Harriet Miers for Karl Rove's sins.
On the day when much of official Washington was buzzing about the prospect that his political Svengali could be indicted for something akin to treason, along with the chief aide of his vice president and various and sundry other administration insiders, President Bush "reluctantly accepted" the decision of his embattled nominee for the Supreme Court to withdraw her name from consideration.
There was nothing "reluctant" about it.
Miers, whose nomination was already in trouble with Senate conservatives and this week faced the prospect of a low rating from the American Bar Association that might well have destroyed her chances with moderates, was going to have to go. When the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter -- says a Republican president's nominee for the highest court in the land "needs a crash course in constitutional law," the question becomes not "if" but "when" the withdrawal will be "reluctantly accepted."Adding just a little more insult to the injury of Harriet Miers, the White House decided to use her withdrawal as part of an elaborate public-relations strategy designed to distract official Washington -- which, of course, includes the White House press corps -- from the question that has transfixed it for days: When will special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indict Rove or "Scooter" Libby or someone else or everyone else?The Miers withdrawal announcement, timed to dominate the news cycles on what would otherwise have been a day of all-indictment-talk-all-the-time, gains the president a brief respite from the around-the-clock speculation about how far the investigation of criminal wrongdoing -- the "outing" of a covert operative for the CIA and attempts to cover up for that wrongdoing -- would reach into the offices of the president and vice president.
The flip-side of the administration's calculus is this: When and if indictments finally come, everyone in Washington will quickly forget about Miers.
None of this means that the administration is in a good position -- there will still be legitimate talk about the crisis of confidence with regard to this president, and Bush's poll numbers will drop -- but it is clear that this White House is still playing the sort of political games for which it is now well known. And that should concern Americans who worry about the character of the Supreme Court.
With Miers out, and with the president and vice president linked to a serious scandal, the administration has an opportunity to come up with a replacement nominee who will draw attention away from discussions of unindicted co-conspirators and the misuse of intelligence to argue the country into a war of whim.
The choice to achieve that goal will undoubtedly be a clearly conservative jurist, almost certainly a woman, whose nomination can rally the Republican base while bringing liberals to the barricades. A rip-roaring fight over the most critical Supreme Court nomination in years is, in the thinking of administration aides, just what Bush needs to turn attention away from his other troubles -- and to suggest that those troubles have more to do with partisanship than presidential missteps and misdeeds.
The withdrawal of the Miers nomination on this critical day tells us that the administration is thinking hard about how to spin its way out of its troubles. It also tells us that, for all the talk about how loyal Bush is to his friends and his country, the reality is that, when this president is in trouble, no one and no institution is safe -- not Harriet Miers, and certainly not the U.S. Supreme Court.