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 | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/20/AR2005102001635.html 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."
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.
The morning papers are portraying Bush as in deep, deep trouble.
Todd Purdum in the New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2005/10/27/politics/politicsspecial1/27cnd-assess.html?hp&ex=1130472000&en=83cdeb251a828706&ei=5094&partner=homepage: "The biggest question for Mr. Bush now is what he can make of the 39 months remaining in his presidency. For this horrible week has been months - even years - in the making. The 2,000th American fatality in Iraq was just the latest daunting milestone in a war that will soon be three years old. The C.I.A. leak investigation that threatens to indict a top White House aide or two on Friday grew out of the fierce debates over the flawed intelligence that led to that war.
"And Harriet E. Miers's withdrawal of her nomination to the Supreme Court is the bitter fruit of Mr. Bush's own frailty in the wake of all those storms - and Hurricane Katrina - and of his miscalculation about how her appointment would be received."
Ron Brownstein in the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-102705assess_lat,0,5552535.story?coll=la-home-headlines:
"George W. Bush's first term was a tutorial on how a determined and aggressive president can multiply his strength and drive sweeping change from a narrow electoral base. His second term increasingly looks like the opposite: a bitter lesson in how swiftly a president's influence can erode and how quickly presidential weakness can breed division in his party.
"The withdrawal today of Harriet E. Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court amid revolt from conservatives underscored the stark message sent by the failure of Bush's Social Security restructuring plan and a series of recent uprisings by congressional Republicans -- he no longer can consistently impose his will on his party, much less the Congress or the country, with his job approval ratings consistently stuck at 45% or below."
Dick Polman in the Philadelphia Inquirer | http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/news/columnists/dick_polman/13016200.htm : "Miers is gone because her nomination infuriated the prominent conservatives whom Bush needs to help him weather his current political woes. She is gone because everyone from Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to George Will and Robert Bork wanted her gone. She is gone because a coterie of conservatives, led by a former Bush speechwriter, had paid for a TV ad on Fox News, demanding that she go. She is gone because few Republican senators felt she was worth fighting for."
Deborah Orin in the New York Post | http://www.nypost.com/news/nationalnews/56394.htm : "Already at a low point in polls, Bush couldn't afford a fight that infuriated his conservative base, alienated swing independents and provided fodder for Democratic charges of cronyism and incompetence."
Paul West in the Baltimore Sun | http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/nationworld/bal-te.analysis28oct28,1,6063027.story?coll=bal-home-headlines , on Bush touring hurricane-ravaged Florida: "Bush's administration has become, in some ways, its own crisis zone, with the president's power to influence events in Washington increasingly in doubt."
Don Lambro and Ralph Hallow in the Washington Times | http://washingtontimes.com/national/20051028-011840-5139r.htm : "The move ends a bitter family fight with his conservative supporters that Mr. Bush could ill-afford while he and his party were under fierce attack on a growing number of political fronts."
American Prospect's Robert Kuttner | http://www.prospect.org/weblog/archives/2005/10/index.html#008150 demands truth in packaging:
"A question about the AP item on Harriet Miers' 'withdrawal': Why does the press play this choreography as if it were reality? Plainly, senior White House strategists assembled, decided that it was time to cut their losses, and yanked Miers. The pretense that this was her decision is preposterous. Poor Harriet decided she was causing her boss too much embarrassment? She didn't have the stomach for it? Does anybody in the real world think this was Miers' decision? But the Associated Press takes the handout at face value."
That draws a dissent from the New Republic's Jason Zengerle | http://www.tnr.com/blog/theplank:
"It doesn't seem that preposterous to me that Miers did this on her own. I'm not saying that she didn't do this under pressure: she clearly saw the writing on the wall that her nomination was, if not necessarily doomed, then certainly in such trouble that it was hurting the White House. But that's my point. Miers has proven herself so slavishly loyal to Bush that it seems perfectly conceivable she would withdraw if she thought it would help her boss. Let's put it another way: If Miers saw a bullet heading toward Bush, she'd jump in front of it. I don't think she'd have to be pushed."
I'm with Kuttner; I doubt anyone at 1600 Penn tried to talk her out of it.
Fred Barnes | http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/006/273sputr.asp , who chided conservatives for abandoning Miers too early, as I mentioned, adopts a positive spin:
"The withdrawal of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers is the first step on the road to political recovery for President Bush. It gives him the opportunity to select a well-known judicial conservative for the Court vacancy, rally conservatives who opposed or were skeptical of Miers, and rebuild his political base.
"Winning confirmation won't be easy. Democrats already have their story down: Bush capitulated to the far right in jettisoning Miers and his new nominee will be a right-wing extremist. My guess is Democrats will stick to this narrative no matter whom the president chooses from the roster of a dozen or more conservatives with strong credentials and deep experience in constitutional law.
"But a fight would be good for Bush. Battling for a highly qualified nominee, this time with conservatives on his side, would hasten the consolidation of his base. And if he's going to accomplish anything significant in the three-plus years left in his second term, he needs his base. He'll also have Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist with him enthusiastically--and prepared to impose the 'nuclear option' to shut off a Democratic filibuster if necessary.
Andrew Sullivan gives credit where it's due:
"This is a big coup for the Washington conservative intellectual establishment and the counter-intelligentsia that has been deliberately built to tackle the left's academic monopoly these last couple of decades. They wanted one of their own on the Court, and they'll get one. At the very least, they have shown they have a veto against anyone too patently unqualified. Given Miers' credentials and post-nomination performance, we may have reason to be grateful for their clout. Score one for Frum!
"Second, it's again amazing how unable this president is to take full responsibility for his decisions and choices. Face-saving is not an unusual thing in politics. But equally it is never a sign of real strength. A strong president takes responsibility for his own choices, even if he feels misunderstood or misled. Reagan's Iran-Contra confession was an example of someone strong enough to admit a failure. This president is not internally strong enough to do something similar. His strength is a form of brittleness. Like all brittleness, it is prone to cracking suddenly and without warning. It just did."
Glenn Reynolds | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9728273/#051027 says the blogosphere could have saved W.:
"This was a noble and necessary thing to do, given that the nomination was a dreadful mistake from the beginning. In fact, if the White House had been reading blogs it might not have been blindsided.
"Then again, after doing such a masterful job with the Roberts nomination, the White House shouldn't have needed to read the blogs to get it right. Why they went with Miers is a mystery to me. As I've said elsewhere, when you nominate someone who's, well, a crony, you should be locked-and-loaded to respond to charges of cronyism. Instead, the White House was caught flat-footed."
Right Wing News | http://www.rightwingnews.com/archives/week_2005_10_23.PHP#004656 has a picture of a dancing Snoopy at the top of the page:
"First of all, thank God! I cannot even begin to tell you how happy this makes me. In fact, I actually whooped so hard when I heard she withdrew that I scared the dog...
"This is such a great moment, such a great day for conservatism! In fact, to celebrate, I'm grilling steak tonight. Oh man, it's just such a win. I mean they say you can't fight City Hall? Well, conservatives just fought the White House and won!"
John Hinderaker | http://powerlineblog.com/ says not everyone on the right hated the nomination:
"I feel sorry for Miers; she was caught in a crossfire, and never really had a chance to speak for herself. But what we've seen so far may be only a tune-up for what awaits the next nominee.
"A lot of conservative pundits are feeling triumphant today, but there are millions of rank and file Republicans who supported the Miers nomination, many of whom--including many dyed in the wool conservatives--believed, rightly or wrongly, that the criticism of Miers from the right was arrogant and elitist. Miers was a poor choice for a number of reasons, not least because her nomination needlessly divided the party.
"There are lots of sighs of relief, and understandably so; but they're premature, I think. Who knows who the next nominee might be? The beginning of the Miers problem was that President Bush committed to naming a woman before he had a woman lined up for the job. We know that he chose Miers only after 'several' women turned him down. We don't know how many said no, or who they were; so at this point, no one knows who is left in the 'woman' pool. I really hope that at this point, Bush forgets about diversity and nominates the best person for the job. But is there any reason to assume that he will do so?"
On the liberal side, Kos | http://www.dailykos.com/ says Harriet basically failed the smell test:
"It seems to me that Miers wasn't done in from a lack of conservative cred as the wingers want to believe. Bush was convinced she was like him and would've fought for her all the way through. She was done in from simple incompetence. Her responses to committee questions betrayed a complete lack of understanding of constitutional law. Her meager writings were incoherent. She was unable to articulate competence in meetings with senators.
"Give Miers the same set of facts but with Judge Roberts' obvious competence on legal issues, and she gets confirmed. She wasn't done in because the crazies flipped. She was done in because she simply wasn't competent to sit on the High Court and it was so painfully obvious."
Josh Marshall | http://talkingpointsmemo.com reaches a similar conclusion:
"Despite the thunderings on the right, this nomination didn't go down because it had so many enemies or because those enemies were so strong. It went down because the nomination never found any reliable bank of defenders. She had no allies. And the White House was too enfeebled to create them."
Who will be the next nominee? Let the speculation begin!