Bush’s defining choice

Sandra Day O’Connor’s abrupt resignation from the U.S. Supreme Court has given President Bush the opportunity to show the American people just what kind of president he is.

The person he chooses to replace O’Connor, who throughout her 24 years on the court has been a pragmatic, non-ideological moderate, will go a long way to determine the way history regards him. Is he the flexible, centrist Republican he claimed to be during both of his campaigns for office? Or is he the rightist ideologue evangelical conservatives want him to be?

The temptation to select a conservative ideologue is great. The Republican Party is within sight of grabbing the political Holy Grail it has sought fervently for four decades, control of all three branches of government—the presidency, Congress and the judiciary. And Bush is heavily indebted to the evangelicals, whose sturdy support at the polls has been central to his victories. They fully expect him to nominate one of their own and will feel betrayed if he doesn’t.

At the same time, Bush knows that by nominating an ultraconservative he will face a bruising confirmation battle in the Senate, not to mention set off a polarizing firestorm of opposition across the nation, one that would greatly distract the GOP from its agenda elsewhere. Opposing factions are already ginning up their efforts.

Much is at stake. The Supreme Court will be taking up a number of touchy social wedge issues in its new term. The abortion rights of teenagers, the Bush administration’s own efforts to override Oregon’s right-to-die law and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy are all on the docket beginning in October, and we can expect affirmative-action, civil-liberties and religion issues to be close behind them.

With ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist also expected to resign shortly, the president is in a position to have an impact on the court that could be as great as anything he has done so far. We hope he has the wisdom at this juncture to replace O’Connor with someone similarly moderate. Those of us who believe the Supreme Court should reflect the political diversity of the nation, not one political party or the other and certainly not one extreme wing of one party, insist on it. If he wants history to see him as a centrist president who tried to represent all the people, that is what he will do.