October 15, 2005
Conservatives Turning on Bush Over Miers

By David M. Shribman

Long ago, when liberals weren't afraid to call themselves that and when the president and much of the congressional leadership were liberals, they had a big problem. (Memo to conservative readers: not that one.)

Their big problem was that they were 100 percenters.

By 100 percenters, I mean that they were disinclined to settle for anything less than 100 percent, whether in environmental legislation or tax policy. It was in the era of liberalism that one of the most devastating phrases about politics -- the perfect is the enemy of the good -- gained wide popular currency.

If you've been paying attention to American politics in the last fortnight, you know exactly where this column is going. Conservatives, who grudgingly but pragmatically accepted what little good they could mine out of mid-20th-century American politics, suddenly have adopted the liberals' outlook on life. They're in power now, and they don't see why they should settle for anything less than the perfect.

Their critics think they're impractical; their supporters think they're principled. Politics is practiced somewhere between the impractical and the principled, which may be why this discipline is sometimes called the art of the possible.

All of which brings us to Harriet Miers, a pleasant enough, innocuous enough cipher who has suddenly found herself in the center of a national debate about the Supreme Court that raises all sorts of questions. But the biggest question can be distilled down to whether, between the Republicans who will follow their leader's admonitions and Democrats who will embrace her because she could have been so much worse, she can win 51 votes in the Senate and gain confirmation to the high court.

You will notice that the biggest screechers in the Supreme Court nomination game have suddenly lost their voice. A hush has fallen over them -- a hush of relief, to be sure, but also a hush of strategy.

The relief on the left is easy to explain; as Ms. Miers' skeptics on the right are only too eager to point out, the president's nominee is no Antonin Scalia, no Clarence Thomas. The strategy is a little more complicated; some on the left clearly are holding back so that it is the Republicans, and not the Democrats, who scuttle the nomination -- not so wild a possibility. Meanwhile, others are calculating that Ms. Miers is the best they can get (and a whole lot better than they feared), so they might as well simply keep quiet, confirm her and hope that she is David Souter in a prim suit. Maybe they will find that she lives alone in a black house and has nothing more adventurous than a cup of yogurt and an apple for lunch.

But the yapping on the right -- maybe it is yelping, not yapping -- is indicative of a deep distrust conservatives have about politics even in an era when conservatives dominate politics.

That may seem contradictory, but it is not. Pick up the phone and call Phyllis Schlafly, whose role in American politics is almost always underestimated on the right and just as often ridiculed on the left. But she was, to use a phrase populated by Dean Acheson, a one-time anti-hero of the right, present at the creation -- at the creation, that is, of the modern conservative movement.

Here's what she says: "Conservatives are very angry -- and we have a right to be angry. We elected Bush to move the court away from its ideas of judicial supremacy. We have nothing to go on to suggest he's moved the bench one inch."

So far, so good. But there is more, and it is telling. Faith may be the evidence for things not seen, but conservatives feel they have seen so little that there is little reason for faith. That may strike you as a little self-pitying, but as a measure of the depth of this feeling, listen to the last two sentences of my conversation with Mrs. Schlafly:

"If we were going to trust anyone, we'd trust Reagan, and he gave us O'Connor," she said in a reference to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whose seat Ms. Miers has been nominated to fill. "So we don't trust anybody."

So right now -- proof that even in our sanitized brand of politics there is room for surprise -- the greatest danger for the president lies not with his determined enemies on the left, who spare no epithet for him. The danger is his friends on the right who are in full-throated rebellion, and who feel duped and betrayed.

Not since the 1960s has a president been in such a predicament. Forty years ago, the liberals who had embraced Lyndon Johnson (the Southerner who won passage of the 1958 Civil Rights bill and then pressed for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, no easy things) abandoned LBJ in droves, and with great passion, splitting the party and delivering the presidency to the man they reviled the most (and the longest), Richard Nixon. It took decades, and it came years after the death of Johnson, but liberals, most forthrightly George S. McGovern and John Kenneth Galbraith, have finally begun to offer public praise for Johnson. Mr. McGovern even argued that, aside from Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt, Johnson was "the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln."

So Mr. Bush may find himself in the awkward position of depending on Democrats for the confirmation of his Supreme Court choice.

Awkward, but maybe not so unusual. Bill Clinton, after all, depended on Republicans in his successful battle to win approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement; indeed, the treaty won more Republican support than Democratic support in both the House and the Senate. Among the Democrats who opposed NAFTA were former Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, and former Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, then the House majority leader. But, almost forgotten today, Clinton had an unlikely ally. It was President Bush's father.

Copyright 2005 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman

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