Two alliterative remarks offer the defining bookends for Harriet Miers’s brief period as a nominee for the US Supreme Court. Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said he was “disappointed, depressed and demoralised” by her nomination. Then two Senate judiciary committee leaders called her responses to their questionnaire “inadequate, incomplete and insulting”.

Taken together they sum up the twin forces that felled her nomination: opposition from conservative intellectuals and doubts about her qualifications within the Senate.

Ms Miers’s withdrawal reveals how far President George W. Bush and his advisers, who a year ago won re-election aided by the most acute political antennae, have fallen. They made misjudgments about the nomination, underestimated conservative hostility and failed to develop an effective counter-attack.

A White House that prides itself on setting the agenda has become unusually reactive: veering between touting Ms Miers’s evangelical beliefs to labelling her critics “sexist”. After the clinical efficiency of the John Roberts nomination, however, this one was criticised candidly by Senator Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary committee, as a “chaotic process”.

The nomination offers the most potent evidence of a White House in disarray. It has been bruised by the constant criticism of the Iraq war, high petrol prices and the slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Now those events are overshadowed by unease about possible indictments in the CIA leak inquiry, of aides such as Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s closest political adviser.

Some strategists suggest the recent problems can be traced to the fact that Mr Rove has been distracted by his own legal woes, having testified before the grand jury four times. Yet that overstates his political authority. Mr Bush’s own instincts lie at the heart of the Miers’s nomination.

At issue is the fact that he shunned the academic and legal elite in favour of someone with whom he said he felt “comfortable”. He picked his personal lawyer: someone who had written flattering personal notes hailing him as the “best president” ever. In doing so Mr Bush placed his personal credibility on the line.

Vin Weber, a Republican strategist, says: “I give him credit. When he says he trusts someone it is his highest recommendation he can give. It is stronger than anything he could find in someone’s record.”

Not enough of his supporters agreed with Mr Bush. As Ken Connor, chairman of the Center for a Just Society, put it: “In God we trust – all others pay cash.”

Having made his second nomination such a personal – rather than ideological – decision, the public shunning of Ms Miers is likely to be a much harder blow for the president. As Scott McClellan, White House spokesman, said yesterday, Mr Bush was “deeply disappointed in the process”.

The reaction in Washington could also reinforce Mr Bush’s bitterness towards a city he has never embraced, and could make him more inclined towards insularity. When he gave a speech on the economy this week, he frequently blamed “people in Washington” for failing to advance his agenda.

Such attacks are unlikely to help the White House regain political momentum. Yet Mr Bush is getting credit for being astute enough to accept political reality with Ms Miers. His acceptance of her withdrawal marks the latest admittance of mistakes, such as conceding the federal government mishandled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“It was the right choice to withdraw her,” Mr Weber says. “She was not put forward in terms that Washington understood …I do not think she was unqualified, but she was a highly unconventional nominee.”

At issue is whether Mr Bush can regain the support of his base by selecting a more conventional candidate. Pat Buchanan, former republican presidential candidate, thinks he can.

“This is a godsend for Ms Miers, for Bush and for conservatives,” he says. “It’s a clean slate opportunity to pick a conservative nominee who will reunite the president’s base and bring the coalition behind him. I don’t think he will fail again.

“The losers here are the Democrats and the left. I don't think they will get another question mark candidate. They will get an exclamation point.”

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