Gerry, from my experience as a Senate staffer, I completely agree with you that the only way to tell how senators will vote is to put them to the test.
Unless the nature of politicians has changed a lot in a decade, many Republican senators, including a lot of conservatives, have little or no interest in fighting on behalf of President Bush’s judicial nominees. Their overarching interest is in getting re-elected–or, more precisely, in getting re-elected easily. From their perspective, a Supreme Court nominee whom Democrats and the media will depict as “extremist” offers no real upside and lots of downside–because lots of their constituents will get upset with them whether they vote for or against the nominee.
In short, Republican senators have an interest in bluffing President Bush into not nominating strong judicial conservatives. In passing over a number of candidates with outstanding public records, I fear that the White House has fallen for this bluff.
It is conceivable (though in my view highly unlikely) that none of these other candidates would have been able to be confirmed. But even if a nomination were to fail, putting Republican senators to the test would have done the public service of exposing who is weak and unreliable. It also would have made the case, going into the 2006 elections, that more reliable Republican senators are needed.