A Self-Inflicted Wound - Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers is a miscalculation that could cost him dearly. Can she still win confirmation?
A good makeup artist could have erased those dark circles under Harriet Miers’s eyes as she appeared before the cameras to accept President Bush’s nomination to the Supreme Court last Monday. Described by White House aides as Bush’s “work wife,” she spent so many hours toiling in the West Wing that colleagues once thought her red Mercedes had been abandoned in the parking lot.
Dutiful she is, but Supreme Court material she is not. Before taking over as White House counsel earlier this year, she was staff secretary, a position of so little consequence it’s not even depicted on “The West Wing,” the fictional TV drama about White House life. Miers put in long hours and was the last person to put paper on the president’s desk, but she wasn’t mulling over constitutional issues.
With his presidency spinning out of control, Bush needed to reach high with this appointment. Instead he made the easiest decision possible. He reached for the person he knows best, a miscalculation that could cost him dearly. “This is a meltdown—this is what a Republican meltdown looks like,” says a Republican strategist with ties to the conservative wing of the party. At meetings on Capitol Hill and all over Washington, conservatives were in an uproar while party regulars were dumbfounded by Bush’s latest self-inflicted wound. “When you have economic difficulties, people dying in a war, political corruption and a government that is seen as unresponsive, in this ugly, harsh political environment, he needed to go above and beyond,” says the strategist. “He needed to pick someone who is potentially more conservative, but certainly more qualified.”
Conservatives gagged and liberals gasped when Bush said with a straight face in the Rose Garden that Miers was the most qualified person he could find. More evidence they’re drinking Kool-Aid in the White House: David Frum, a former White House speechwriter, reported on his blog that Miers once told him that Bush was “the most brilliant man she’d ever met.” What will happen when she has a conversation with Justice Antonin Scalia? Will her head explode?
Bush apparatchiks fanned out on Capitol Hill and around town to quell the insurgency. Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie met with a buzz saw when he briefed Senate aides. “Normally everyone lines up and people say you’re great and it’s really easy,” says a participant. Instead there was defiance. “You don’t know what you’re talking about … Don’t expect us to roll over,” they barked at Gillespie, who inflamed the situation when he suggested the attacks on Miers contained “a whiff of sexism and a whiff of elitism.” Bush probably thinks this is all about sticking it to the Ivy League establishment by sending them a graduate of Southern Methodist University.
An architect of the ’94 Republican revolution likened the changed attitude to what happened to Siegfried and Roy, the legendary Las Vegas act. “It used to be they would raise their hands and the tigers would kneel. Now it’s exactly the opposite, they raise their hands and the tigers attack.”
Just because Republicans are restive doesn’t mean that Miers won’t get confirmed. Conservative activists, the folks Ronald Reagan used to call the “professional conservatives,” can complain all they want, but confirmation is up to the Senate. “The Weyrichs of the world, with all due respect, don’t matter,” says a GOP vote counter. (Paul Weyrich heads the conservative Free Congress Foundation.) “If Brownback objects, then you pay attention.” Republican Sen. Sam Brownback is the go-to person for social conservatives. Initially cool to the nomination, Brownback—a staunch opponent of abortion—told reporters that he was still undecided after meeting with Miers on Thursday. Describing Miers as “a very decent lady,” Brownback noted that “no promises were made either way.”
Brownback’s ambivalence reflects how unsettled the nomination remains. Republican senators are getting bombarded with calls,” says a GOP consultant. “For the first time in a long time a real grass-roots movement is happening. This goes beyond the pooh-bahs in Washington, and it’s all about ’06 and not having the base fall asleep or go for a walk.”
Conservatives wanted a voice on the high court, an intellectual force who could shape opinion and bring others along. There’s no evidence that Miers is of that caliber. “Harriet’s [confirmation] hearing really matters,” says Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. “Roberts hit it out of the park that first night. It was over after that; the rest was going through the motions. How she does will make or break this nomination.”
Miers was in law school before Roe v Wade was handed down. “There’s been a revolution in constitutional law in the 30 years since her time in law school,” says Karen O’Connor, founder of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “The [Supreme] Court has evolved in its thinking about abortion law, rights of criminal defendants, telecommunications. She’s going to have to take the equivalent of a bar review course. If that was me,” says O’Connor, who is a lawyer, “I would be physically ill knowing how much I had to learn in a short period of time.”