October 28, 2005
Conservatives Will Regret the Miers Withdrawal
J. Dionne Jr.
-- The damage President Bush and the conservative movement have
inflicted on their drive to pack the U.S. Supreme Court with allies
will not be undone by Harriet Miers' decision to withdraw her
such a vulnerable nominee, Bush single-handedly undercut the conservatives'
long-standing claim that the Senate and the rest of us owed great
deference to a president's choice for the court. Conservatives
displayed absolutely no deference to Bush when he picked someone
they didn't like. The actual conservative ``principle'' was that
the Senate should defer to the president's choice -- as long as
that choice was acceptable to conservatives. Some principle.
had railed against Democratic efforts to press court nominees
(including Chief Justice John Roberts) for their views on legal
issues. Back in July, The Washington Post disclosed a
planning document circulated among Republicans on the Senate Judiciary
Committee. The document said nominees for the Supreme Court should
avoid disclosing ``personal political views or legal thinking
on any issue.'' Liberals were terribly gauche and inappropriate
for wanting to know someone's opinions before awarding that person
life tenure on the nation's most powerful court.
But it was
neither gauche nor inappropriate for conservatives to demand
that Miers clarify her views on a slew of issues, notably Roe
v. Wade. When liberals asked for clarity, they were committing
a sin. When conservatives asked for clarity, they were engaged
in a virtuous act. Thus are conservatives permitted to alter their
principles to suit their own political situation.
also that small matter of a nominee's religious views. Conservatives
condemned liberals who suggested it was worth knowing how Roberts'
religious convictions might affect his judging. But when Miers
started running into trouble with conservatives, the Bush administration
encouraged its allies to talk up Miers' deep religious convictions
to curry favor among social conservatives. I guess it's OK for
conservatives to bring up religion whenever they want, but never
appropriate for liberals to speak of spiritual things.
manner of Miers' exit was disingenuous, not to mention derivative.
In announcing her withdrawal, the White House said that ``it is
clear that senators would not be satisfied until they gained access
to internal documents concerning advice provided during her tenure
at the White House -- disclosures that would undermine a president's
ability to receive candid counsel.'' Miers' decision, the statement
said, ``demonstrates her deep respect for this essential aspect
of the constitutional separation of powers.''
House was following, almost to the letter, the exit strategy outlined
last week by my conservative colleague, Charles Krauthammer.
But Krauthammer was honest enough to admit what the White House
could not: that all this verbiage was about saving face. The president
had to know when he named Miers that her lack of a judicial paper
trail would make her advice as White House counsel all the more
important for the Senate to know. Bush figured that conservatives
would do what they have so often done before: roll over, back
him up, resist requests for documents, and help him force Miers
through. Bad call.
the conservatives would now like to pretend that none of this
happened. The idea on the right is that Bush should nominate a
staunch conservative with an ample judicial record and pick a
big fight with Democrats that would unite the conservative movement.
It's hard to escape the idea that with special prosecutor Patrick
Fitzgerald breathing down the administration's neck, the president
decided he could not afford any further fractures in his own political
coalition. So he threw Miers over the side.
been a powerfully instructive moment. The willingness of conservatives
to abandon what they had once held up as high and unbending principles
reveals that this battle over the Supreme Court is, for them,
a simple struggle for power. It is thus an unfortunate reminder
of the highly unprincipled Supreme Court decision in 2000 that
helped put Bush in the White House. Conservatives who had long
insisted on deference to states' rights put those commitments
aside when doing so would advance the political fortunes of one
of their own.
recover from all this in a way Bush and the conservatives will
not. She has suffered collateral damage caused by a president
who did not understand the degree to which his power has eroded
and did not grasp the nature of the movement that elected him.
And conservatives will come to regret making their willingness
to contradict their own principles plain for all to see.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group