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Power of the Punditocracy

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 28, 2005; 10:21 AM

In a few short weeks, Harriet Miers may be as dimly remembered as G. Harrold Carswell, and as the battle rages over a new nominee, some folks will wonder what all the fuss was about.

But Miers's 24 days in the searing spotlight demonstrated many things. One, that the conservative punditocracy is a powerful force, and never more so than when it decides to break with a Republican president. Two, that the normally disciplined White House can look amateurish when it makes as many mistakes as it did on this nomination. Three, that a Supreme Court candidate may be able to survive a thin resume, but not also a bungled questionnaire, unimpressive meetings with senators, an attempt to sell her on religious grounds, gushing letters to her boss and no trace of ever trying to seriously address constitutional issues. Four, that nominating cronies is risky business. Five, that the party seems divided (former senator Jack Danforth told CNN that the activists' attacks were "mean" and "outrageous," though they simply used the power of their words to undermine a shaky nominee). Six, that presidents really do seem snakebitten in their second terms (see Watergate, Iran-contra, Lewinsky).

Since I patrol the media beat, here is my report on Issue No. 1, the punditocracy:

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., 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."


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