Conservative Pundits Packed a Real Punch
Friday, October 28, 2005
Charles Krauthammer, David Frum, Bill Kristol, Laura Ingraham and their conservative colleagues didn't sink the Harriet Miers nomination on their own. But in the blink of a news cycle, they turned against their president, framed the debate and provided the passion that undermined her case.
It was Krauthammer who offered the White House last Friday what he called "the perfectly honorable way to solve the conundrum" by using a refusal to turn over Miers's internal memos as a fig leaf for withdrawing her Supreme Court bid -- which is precisely what she did.
"I guess she reads my column," the Washington Post and Fox News commentator said yesterday. "All that was missing was the footnote."
This time, no one can blame the liberal media. And what made the right's revolt all the more remarkable was that its opinion-mongering wing didn't simply stand in polite opposition to Miers. Its troops hit the trenches, attacked Miers as unqualified, ripped President Bush for cronyism and in some cases raised money to defeat the nomination.
Some, like Ingraham, a former Supreme Court clerk whose syndicated radio show reaches 340 stations, felt the heat. "I received phone calls and e-mails saying I was being disloyal to the president and we were Borking Miers," said Ingraham, whose stance was also challenged by about a third of her listeners who called in. "I was standing up for what I believe are conservative judicial principles, and no one was going to dissuade me from that. . . . Without alternative media, the talking points on Miers would have carried the day."
Krauthammer, for his part, drew no flak. "I've always written what I thought and never ask anybody in advance and never much care what official people think about it afterward," he said.
Still, the contrast with the nearly lock-step conservative support for the administration on other battles -- from Iraq to the campaign against John Kerry to the CIA leak investigation -- could hardly be starker. And the sheer speed of the anti-Miers broadsides meant that no one had to wait until the evening newscasts or morning papers to find out that much of the right was appalled by the prospect of Miers on the high court.
After Bush nominated his White House counsel at 8 a.m. on Sept. 29, Ingraham was criticizing Miers on the air at 9, and Kristol was doing the same on Fox News minutes later. At 10:17, Frum assailed the nomination on his National Review blog, an essay that drew extra attention because he had worked with Miers as a White House speechwriter.
"The talking point was 'Let's wait for the hearings because we don't know anything,' " Frum said. "Well, I knew something. It was my responsibility. This was not fun. I take no pleasure in this. The long-term consequences for me are probably not going to be favorable."
In recent days, Frum helped found a group called Americans for Better Justice, along with such columnists as Mona Charen and Linda Chavez, an unsuccessful Bush nominee for labor secretary. The group raised $300,000 and began airing anti-Miers commercials.
"I don't think that's what journalists ought to do, even if they're in opinion journalism," said Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard. He was one of the most prominent conservatives writing that his ideological allies should hold their fire until the Senate confirmation hearings.
"I thought the conservatives who came out so harshly against Miers were off base, but they had some effect in keeping Republican senators from immediately jumping behind Miers," Barnes said.
At first, some White House supporters dismissed the early conservative critics as Ivy League elitists ganging up on a non-judge who attended Southern Methodist University. But the groundswell on the right spread: A skeptical Rush Limbaugh interview with Dick Cheney. A National Review editorial saying the "prudent course" would be for Miers to withdraw. A Wall Street Journal editorial calling Bush's move "a political blunder of the first order." A George Will column in The Post saying the Miers nomination "discredits, and even degrades, all who toil at justifying it."
As newspapers began digging out past speeches and writings by Miers on such subjects as affirmative action and abortion, right-leaning pundits grew even more alarmed that she was insufficiently conservative. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg said he wound up channeling the views of lawyers and former Reagan and Bush administration officials who could not speak out because of "career considerations."
"We were all hearing from people in the know that this woman simply wasn't up to snuff," said Goldberg, who initially took a wait-and-see stance and then opposed Miers as her past writings surfaced. "We were putting forth an argument that wasn't just punditry. We were reflecting deep discontent within the conservative movement. We played a part in changing the climate simply because of the megaphone we have."
Now the dissenters are eager to move on from what they see as a family feud, saying they hope Bush will nominate someone the right can enthusiastically embrace. The message of the day: no gloating.
"I feel bad for Harriet Miers, who'd been put in the position of being set up for an unhappy end," Frum said.
"I know people see it as a meltdown," Krauthammer said. "I think it's a sign of maturity of a movement that can have a furious fight over principle."
No one, of course, had any warning. At 8:15 yesterday morning, Kristol was on the New York set of "Fox & Friends," flatly predicting -- with more confidence than he actually felt -- that Miers would bow to the pressure and withdraw. He walked one block to his hotel and was having a cup of coffee when his cell phone rang. "It was Fox, telling me to come back on the air," he said.