News Analysis A Long, Rocky Road With 39 Months to Go

It seems safe to say that President Bush has never had a worse political week than this one - and it is not over yet.

By Todd S. Purdum

WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 - George W. Bush has been in the White House for 248 weeks, through a terrorist attack, two wars and a bruising re-election. But it seems safe to say that he has never had a worse political week than this one - and it is not over yet.

"I think all bets are off," said former Senator Warren B. Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire. "Who knows what's next?"

The biggest question for Mr. Bush now is what he can make of the 39 months remaining in his presidency. For this horrible week has been months - even years - in the making. The 2,000th American fatality in Iraq was just the latest daunting milestone in a war that will soon be three years old. The C.I.A. leak investigation that threatens to indict a top White House aide or two on Friday grew out of the fierce debates over the flawed intelligence that led to that war.

And Harriet E. Miers's withdrawal of her nomination to the Supreme Court is the bitter fruit of Mr. Bush's own frailty in the wake of all those storms - and Hurricane Katrina - and of his miscalculations about how her appointment would be received.

His effort to avoid a fight by choosing a nominee with a scant public record (whose conservative fidelity only he could vouch for) instead prompted a ferocious backlash from the conservative activists he has courted for years.

"There's all this talk about the Republican base and the conservative base of the Republican Party, and the conservative base of the president and how it's important to play to the base and please the base and fawn over the base," said former Senator John C. Danforth, the Missouri Republican who was Mr. Bush's ambassador to the United Nations.

"And look what it gets President Bush," Mr. Danforth continued. "It just gets him a kick in the rear. That's what they've done to him, and they've done it to him at a time when he's vulnerable, and they've done it at the expense of a perfectly fine human being."

Some scholars and Republican elders say it is now time for Mr. Bush to do what Ronald Reagan did when the Iran-contra scandal threatened to derail his second term: shake up the White House staff, retool his domestic and foreign policy agenda and move on. But most say they see few signs that Mr. Bush intends to do so.

"Assume there are several indictments," said Richard Norton Smith, the head of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill., and a biographer of several prominent Republicans.

"The question becomes: Is there a Howard Baker moment?" Mr. Smith added, referring to the former Tennessee senator whom Mr. Reagan tapped as chief of staff to clean house. "And if there's a Howard Baker moment, who's Howard Baker? There aren't as many 'wise men' around Washington as there were 20 years ago."

Ms. Miers's withdrawal is all the more remarkable because Mr. Bush so seldom backs down. Again and again, he has racked up legislative victories that once seemed improbable, or at least managed to save face. His instinct, abetted by Vice President Dick Cheney, will once again be to grind out advances where he can find them.

In that sense, the abandonment of Ms. Miers seemed deliberate, an effort to shift the spotlight, however briefly, from the expected actions of the special prosecutor investigating the leak of a C.I.A. agent's identity, and reposition the president for a new confirmation battle with conservatives by his side.

But the president's second term legislative agenda is at a standstill on matters large and small. His hopes for overhauling Social Security are dead for this year; the goal of reshaping the estate tax stalled with Hurricane Katrina; and his administration was even forced to backtrack this week on its post-Katrina suspension of a law that requires paying locally prevailing wages for construction projects financed by federal money.

The White House had argued that suspending the law, the Davis-Bacon Act, could speed hurricane repairs. But critics, including some Congressional Republicans, complained that the administration was taking advantage of the disaster to upend a law important to unions.

Mr. Bush blamed Ms. Miers's withdrawal on Senate demands for information about her views on constitutional and legal questions during her service as White House counsel and in other top staff jobs.

"It is clear that senators would not be satisfied until they gained access to internal documents concerning advice provided during her tenure at the White House, disclosures that would undermine a president's ability to receive candid counsel," Mr. Bush said in a statement.

That seemed more a rationale than a reason, but Mr. Bush's articulation of it now effectively precludes his naming Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Ms. Miers's predecessor as White House counsel, to the court, as some aides have long suggested he might like to do.

"They're not reaching out; they're in a bunker mentality," said one veteran Republican familiar with the thinking in the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of offending the president. "The idea that they're going to blame the Senate process for her going down says to me there's no introspection going on."

Second-term presidents are notoriously insulated from second-guessing, and Mr. Bush has never been one to invite private criticism, or confess public error. His high premium on staff loyalty may well have led him to misjudge how his nomination of Ms. Miers - by all accounts the ultimate loyalist - would play.

"In the end, I always thought the thing that would bring her down was that she was his lawyer," said Mr. Smith, the historian. "That makes people uncomfortable. It's just too inside."

Lyndon B. Johnson's nomination of his longtime confidant Abe Fortas to be chief justice collapsed in 1968 partly for the same reason.

Richard D. Friedman, an expert on Supreme Court history at the University of Michigan Law School, said Ms. Miers's withdrawal reflected the reality that modern confirmations had become "so contentious that the president has an incentive to pick somebody whose ideology he believes is compatible with his but about whom little is known," while the Senate "then feels duty-bound to find out what it can about the nominee's ideology."

He added, "The nominee and the administration put up a wall, but in this case, it crumbled," in part because of doubts in both parties about Ms. Miers's stature.

The conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan wrote in Human Events Online that, by withdrawing, Ms. Miers "may just have helped" Mr. Bush "save his presidency." In the same journal, Ann Coulter allowed, "Bush has us back on the team, ready to cheer for him unreservedly."

But former Senator John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who is pressing for the nomination of his home-state candidate, Judge Edith Brown Clement of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, had a much different view of what Ms. Miers's withdrawal portends for Mr. Bush's power to influence his own party, much less the opposition, for the rest of his term.

"It means," Mr. Breaux said, "that the fear factor is gone."


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