George W. Bush may, indeed, be a lousy president but he’s turning out to be one helluva poker player. When Dubya retires he might consider partnering up with fellow Texan and legendary card player Doyle Brunson who was last seen trying to buy up the World Series of Poker tour. When Bush’s hand was finally called it wasn’t a Lady. Wasn’t even a half-cocked cowboy like Alberto Gonzalez. The president finally turned over his cards Tuesday night, and the Joker turned out to be none other than Judge John G. Roberts Jr. Judge who? This is what “Texas Dolly” Brunson, who after all wrote the veritable bible of Texas Hold’em, would call a classic suck-out. You deftly underplay your hand, egging on your over-confident opponent to bet wildly, goading him to escalate on each turn and finally to toss in a mile-high stack of chips. But then you quietly reveal what you had in the hole and sweep the pot off the table leaving your shell-shocked rival to glumly and numbly stare off into middle space. The way Democrats have been gearing up for the battle over confirmation of the next Supreme Court justice you’d think that Bush was going to nominate Pat Robertson or Ralph Reed and as much as invite a $100 million TV attack campaign. Like Bush was some sort of sucker who sits at the table but can’t suppress a smile when dealt a pair of wired Jacks or a frown when peeking at a dead-end 7-2. Got to give him more credit than that. By dealing in the low-profile, audience-friendly Roberts, Bush gets the ideological reliability that he and some of his most zealous allies have yearned for but with remarkably low political risks. Bush’s selection shifts the onus of any national nomination showdown onto the Democrats, directly challenging them to shoot their wad on an iffy proposition. Sure, Roberts seems a predictable 101 percent conservative who will make the toadies at the Family Research Council dampen their undies. They’re no doubt thrilled that in a brief he co-wrote for the Reagan administration Roberts called for overturning Roe vs. Wade. And Roberts’ record as a loyal lieutenant in the Bush 2000 Florida operation earns him some additional conservative Brownie points. Yet, with only two years on the federal bench, the 50-year-old Roberts has a scant paper trail. And when he comes before the Judiciary Committee for confirmation and Ted Kennedy or Patrick Leahy asks him straight out about his wanting to outlaw abortion, Roberts will no doubt fudge his answer saying he wrote that incendiary brief as a lawyer for the White House. He will also argue that, at another time, he was a lawyer for the Playboy Channel. (He already pulled that act during his confirmation for the circuit bench.) Bush is desperately hoping to make this a political suck-out, secretly praying for a full-frontal, People-for-the-American-Way-ACLU-Planned-Parenthood-MoveOn.org assault against Roberts. He has to gauge such a confrontation as a win-win for himself. Let the Democrats burn through tens of millions of dollars trying to stop Roberts, simultaneously shifting all public attention away not only from the CIA-leak scandal, but more importantly from its underlying issue: how we got into Iraq and what exactly we are doing there. Better for Bush that the headlines focus on the minutiae of Roberts’ written decisions than on the civil war within the war that seems to be macabrely spinning loose in Iraq (more than 200 dead in just the last week). Better for Bush that the Democrats look like bad losers, pulling out the stops to block such a nice man as Mr. Roberts, maybe even resorting to an obstructionist filibuster. And just exactly what does Bush risk? If Roberts somehow gets Borked (a very unlikely possibility by the numbers), Bush will merely nominate another right-wing conservative who eventually will be confirmed. So, yes, dear liberals, abortion rights are at risk no matter who Bush eventually puts on the bench. That’s the power he has as winner of the election. In the meantime, any prolonged high-stakes stare-down around this nomination will likely galvanize Bush’s own base, casting him as a martyred and courageous president bravely going toe-to-toe with raging feminazis and baby-killers instead of as a bumbling zealot who has led us into a bloody quagmire. So, as Dolly Brunson would counsel, calculate your odds and count up your possible outs before you impulsively play your hand. Flinging in all your chips trying to scare out the other guy can be suicidal, especially when he’s holding better cards and he knows it. Brunson will tell you that to win in the long run, you need to know when to make the strategic lay-down. You avoid the suck-out by not getting sucked in to begin with. Imagine the consternation in the White House if come next week the Senate Democrats say, “You know what, Mr. President? You can have your Judge Roberts because we don’t have the votes. Now let’s get back to talking about that little war of yours.” Don’t bet on it.