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.
Unfortunately, the Loyalists get outnumbered pretty quickly by:
The Rebel Alliance. The bloggers who join rightist icons such as Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan, Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol in opposing Miers's nomination refuse to trust Bush. Many already felt betrayed by this president on a number of issues, including his lack of initiative in securing the Southern border against illegal immigration and his signing of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill even after he noted its lack of constitutional merit. These rebels don't have a plan for taking over the galaxy, but they would like to stop what they see as another Bush foul-up before it winds up like the last few "trust me" Republican Supreme Court nominees, a string starting with John Paul Stevens and ending with Souter.
While the Loyalist Army comes under the command of mostly one man, the Rebel Alliance has several nexuses in the blogosphere. Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, The Corner at National Review Online, RedState.org and UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge all want to see Harriet Miers either withdrawn or defeated. Malkin has provided lots of rhetorical flourish; addressing the notion that Miers should be confirmed because of the doors she opened for women in the legal world, Malkin remarked that conservatives want established scholars on the bench, not "bellhops."
Even with its superior numbers, the Rebel Alliance has its work cut out for it. Anyone expecting George Bush to back away from a fight or to fail to come to the defense of his friends has not paid much attention over the past five years. When moderates wanted Dick Cheney dropped from the 2004 ticket, Bush openly scoffed at the suggestion. Why would he act differently now?
Most of the rebels understand that the Democrats will likely give Miers a pass, especially since Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid suggested her to Bush. No one really expects a GOP Senate caucus that essentially ran from a fight with Democrats over the abuse of the filibuster to rebel against the president on a judicial nominee who will get broad bipartisan support. Even though syndicated columnist George Will and others lobbed highly accurate and extremely damaging bombshells at Bush's position last week, the morale boost the rebels received will be short-lived.
Will the Rebel Alliance abandon Bush if they can't derail Miers's nomination? Some are arguing to do just that, saying it's necessary to purge the GOP of its moderates to ensure ideological purity. But that still appears to be a fringe position. The rebels are so far being careful to limit the fight to Miers and to avoid the longer-range targets they'll have to face if they fail here.
But some critics of the Miers nomination have thought that far ahead and want to pull conservatives back from the edge of a disastrous schism. Which brings us to the third, centrist group:
The Trench-Dwelling Dogfaces. Those of us who find ourselves torn between the unconvincing, unrelenting positivism of the Loyalists and the potentially destructive Rebel Alliance occupy a no-man's land of political tiptoeing. We spend our blogging time raising our heads out of the foxholes to note the inbound missiles coming from both sides, and wishing the war would stop -- really soon.
Despite our normal support for the president, we Dogfaces fail to recognize George Bush's supposed brilliance in naming his personal lawyer to the bench, whatever Hugh Hewitt says. Even if Miers obviously has earned Bush's trust, she just as obviously has done nothing remarkable to earn the trust of conservatives; being a mover and shaker in the American Bar Association doesn't lend her much credibility among those who have watched that group get more and more politically activist in what we view as the wrong direction. Most of us have tired of the "trust me" approach. In short, we find ourselves with some sympathy for the Rebel Alliance.
However, we also see the realistic outcome of the bloody civil war that threatens to split the GOP over what clearly is a White House blunder -- one compounded by White House adviser Ed Gillespie's charging the Rebel Alliance with "sexism" at last week's meeting. With important mid-term elections next year and at least one more Supreme Court opening likely during Bush's term, we want to avoid a party schism that could make him a prematurely lame duck and hand the Democrats an opportunity to seize control of one or both houses of Congress.
So who will prevail? All I can predict is that if Miers is confirmed, the debate will continue into the next election cycle. And with this much rage building, the mid-terms look more exciting every day.
Ed Morrissey writes freelance commentary for the Web log Captain's Quarters, is a regular contributor to the online Daily Standard and co-hosts a weekly Twin Cities talk-radio show.