Conservatives and the White House

The Rift's Repercussions Could Last Rest of Term

(Lawrence Jackson - AP)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 28, 2005

The withdrawal of Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court yesterday was a triumph for conservative activists, but some of the drama's lead players said the bruising battle between erstwhile allies may have left scars for the remainder of President Bush's term.

Those who opposed Miers as insufficiently qualified and unreliably conservative said yesterday they would use their new zeal and organization to drive Bush not only to pick an outwardly conservative nominee but also to press a more conservative agenda through his last three years in office. Some accused those who stuck with Miers as showing themselves more loyal to the White House than their stated conservative principles.

Those who stuck with Miers warned that the White House will long remember the activists who turned on the president's nominee and are not likely to be receptive to their demands.

"This is an enormously significant event for conservatives, no doubt about that," said Manuel A. Miranda, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who led the conservative drive to scuttle Miers's confirmation. "It will be stamped across our foreheads for years: Which side were you on in the Miers fight?"

Without doubt, Miers's nomination stirred passions among conservatives that have lain dormant for much of the Bush presidency. Richard A. Viguerie, an architect of the conservative movement, said activists held their tongues for nearly five years as Bush expanded the federal role in education, imposed tariffs on imported steel, secured a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, and oversaw the rapid expansion of federal spending.

"But we did that because it was all about the courts, all about the courts, all about the courts," Viguerie said. "Then when he betrayed us on a Supreme Court nominee, that just woke us all up."

Organizations that were launched to shepherd Bush's judicial nominees to confirmation were co-opted by opponents to Miers. Some umbrella organizations, such as the Judicial Confirmation Network, could do little for Miers, as conservative donors withheld money and activists withheld passion, Miranda said. Conference calls fell apart in anger. Private conversations were leaked to the media, such as the charge by former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie that Miers's opponents were sexist.

New coalitions formed to block her, such as Americans for Better Justice and Conservative intellectuals openly questioned the president's judgment, while White House allies accused Miers's conservative critics of sexism and elitism for opposing a woman trained far from the Ivy League.

Suddenly, there was a level of discord in Republican circles not seen since George H.W. Bush was in office.

"We have always stood for our core issues more than politics," said Jan LaRue, chief counsel of the conservative Concerned Women for America, which had called for Miers's withdrawal on Wednesday. "Maybe some advisers in the White House have now been reminded of that."

Now conservatives are issuing demands: an experienced, brash, conservative nominee not afraid to openly debate judicial philosophies; a get-tough approach to illegal immigration; a renewed push to make Bush's first-term tax cuts permanent; and a new round of tax cuts on top.

"He's not going to be able to have the type of relationship with conservatives he had before, even if he gives us a nominee we like," Viguerie said of the president. "He's not going to be able to tell conservatives what the policy will be and have everybody meekly go along."

But other Republican activists feel betrayed by what they saw as rash, ill-considered judgments against Miers, quickly passed by some conservatives, then followed by what Miers supporter Jay Sekulow called a "pile-on factor."

Ronald A. Cass, a legal consultant in McLean and co-chairman of the Committee for Justice, which stood by Miers, warned that Bush is not likely to be receptive to demands or peace overtures from her opponents.

"If I were involved in making these picks and had someone shooting at me from the very beginning, calling on withdrawal as the only way to get him to stop shooting, I would be hard-pressed to accept overtures of, 'Oh, now let's be friends,' " Cass said. "I think at this point, the president works with people he feels are his allies."

Some activists said yesterday those divisions will heal quickly, as soon as Bush produces a nominee with unassailable credentials and a proven conservative philosophy. David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter who attacked the choice of Miers in starkly personal terms, said conservatives will be so relieved to get Miers's nomination behind them and so gratified that the president was willing to listen to them that they will provide support he has not seen in months.

Sekulow, who is chief counsel of the pro-Miers American Center for Law & Justice, acknowledged the splintering of the alliance he carefully assembled with former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray and former attorney general Edwin Meese III to protect Bush's nominees. But, he said, there could be meetings as soon as Monday to prepare for the next nominee.

"I don't think there are going to be any scars," said Sekulow, who Miranda accused of betraying his principles in favor of blind Bush loyalty. "We will certainly reconstitute our group and then move forward -- without a hitch."

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