How Harriet Unleashed a Storm on the Right

One in, one to go: In July, White House counsel Harriet Miers escorted Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., right, to a meeting with President Bush. Conservatives, many of whom were lukewarm about Roberts, have split over Bush's choice of Miers to replace Sandra Day O'Connor.
One in, one to go: In July, White House counsel Harriet Miers escorted Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., right, to a meeting with President Bush. Conservatives, many of whom were lukewarm about Roberts, have split over Bush's choice of Miers to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. (The White House Via Getty Images)
By Edward Morrissey
Sunday, October 9, 2005

Well, he's finally done it. By nominating White House lawyer Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, George Bush has managed to accomplish what Al Gore, John Kerry, Tom Daschle and any number of Democratic heavyweights have been unable to do: He has cracked the Republican monolith. Split his own party activists. And how.

The president's surprise pick to replace Sandra Day O'Connor has ignited a massive debate among his former loyalists, especially in the blogosphere, where I spend a fair amount of time. Wails of betrayal are clashing with assurances of the president's brilliant strategic thinking. Meanwhile, the heavyweights of punditry drop columns like artillery shells into what already may be a conservative civil war.

The question on so many minds on the right is: What in Bork's name was Bush thinking?

You have to understand. Conservatives have dreamed for decades of reversing what we see as the court's hijacking of legislative prerogative to advance a liberal agenda. It's what fueled the drive to develop new voters for the GOP and push for a majority in Congress. And finally the political stars have aligned -- giving us a Republican White House, a solidly Republican Senate, and a Republican House to boot.

Bush himself ran on the promise that his election would guarantee Supreme Court nominations in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. But when he finally got an opening on the court -- whom did he pick? An unknown quantity named John Roberts. After an initial round of puzzlement over this selection, conservatives backed the nomination, even though Roberts never gave any solid indication of whether he agreed with the philosophy of judicial restraint.

It helped that we expected a second opening, which came all too quickly with Chief Justice William Rehnquist's death. But now Bush has presented us with even more of a cipher, one with no demonstrable constitutional scholarship or judicial record, and whose best qualification appears to be proximity to him. The White House hasn't publicly used Miers's evangelical religion as an argument for her conservative credentials, but her supporters haven't shown any qualms about proclaiming it a deciding factor. But since when did that represent conservatism?

The selection of Miers does represent one of Bush's core values: his loyalty to his inner circle of aides. Conservatives normally see that as a big plus, but it has its drawbacks. And Miers isn't the first possible candidate for the court to raise conservative blood pressure. Some on the right have speculated that Bush picked Miers as a payback for the trashing Alberto Gonzales has taken from the right wing since O'Connor first announced her retirement. It's no secret that Bush would like to leave office with his longtime friend and ally on the Supreme Court as the first Hispanic justice. But conservatives made it clear that they regard Gonzales as a potential David Souter, a moderate who would bend to the left the way the notorious Bush 41 nominee did almost as soon as his hand left the Bible at his swearing-in ceremony.

Most conservatives feel betrayed after working so hard to get enough Republicans elected to confirm almost any nominee. That's why heavyhitters like Paul Weyrich, Grover Norquist and others confronted the president's men about the nomination at the White House last week. Some, however, think the president's move demonstrates a hidden brilliance that may take a decade or more to yield fruit. And then there are those who think the president made a mistake, but that any attempt at correction will only compound the damage.

All you have to do is look at the blogosphere of the right to grasp the magnitude of the bomb the president has dropped. The cyberspace crowd of activists divides up into three basic camps, starting with:

The Loyalist Army. Those supporting the Miers nomination, while definitely in the minority, are betting that their high opinion of George Bush and his talent for selecting judges is still justified. Chief among the Loyalists is radio talk-show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt. A former White House attorney and constitutional law professor, Hewitt has a broad following and a reputation for good-humored but devastating debating skills. Many bloggers on the right owe much of their success to his support -- including me.

Hewitt asks people to trust Bush and provides links to just about everyone with a kind word to contribute on behalf of Miers as well. He started his campaign to combat right-wing unhappiness early on the first day of the nomination, reminding people that Miers helped Bush develop many of the legal theories the administration has used to fight terrorism at home and abroad. And he challenged conservatives to remember that they trusted Bush on other judicial nominees.

He quickly linked to a number of like-minded bloggers and writers, but with a couple of exceptions, these tend to be evangelicals -- Marvin Olasky, James Dobson and Jay Sekulow, to name a few. Conservative Catholic blogger The Anchoress doesn't get a link but mostly sides with Hewitt. As more conservatives plainly did not back Bush, Hewitt started warning about "the big sulk" and hardened his rhetoric against the opposition.

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