PRESIDENT Bush's leadership style is all about projecting a tough-guy stubbornness, even in defense of wrong-headed decisions. But with his popularity at a low point, he can't afford to offend his hard-core conservative base.
Harriet Miers, viewed on all sides as the wrong nominee to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, obliged him by withdrawing.
Staying in character, Mr. Bush made no concession to the general wisdom. He admitted no mistake. In expressing regret about her withdrawal, he praised Ms. Miers' "extraordinary legal experience" - which for this position did not add up to minimal qualifications - her character, and her "conservative judicial philosophy," a subtle reproof to many of his supporters who refused to believe it.
For this debacle, he blamed the Senate, not himself. With the Senate trying to seek documents related to Ms. Miers' service as White House counsel - information necessary to understanding a little-known candidate - both she and President Bush could take a stand on the prerogative of presidential confidentiality.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who had recommended her to Mr. Bush, observed that the "radical right wing of the Republican Party killed the Harriet Miers nomination." Well, yes, but the fact is that many on the Democratic side of the aisle would not have voted for her confirmation either. Having never been a judge, Ms. Miers was a mystery candidate to all.
In fact, whatever the political calculus on winning and losing may be, the real winner yesterday was the integrity of the system. An attempt at presidential cronyism failed and everyone can applaud that.
But judging by the jubilation among conservatives, this may yet prove a pyrrhic victory.
One of the reasons that Ms. Miers did not advance was the true believers on the right wanted a fight, not a mild-mannered proceeding for a consensus candidate or a stealth one. They expect Mr. Bush to deliver one of their own, the more provocative the better.
Once upon a time, Mr. Bush said he was a uniter, not a divider. What he really should do is find a nominee who is qualified and in tune not with extremists, but with the great rich vein of moderate opinion in America.
We shall see soon enough whether Mr. Bush is his own man or a prisoner of his base.