- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2005

If there’s one lesson to be learned from Harriet Miers’ doomed Supreme Court nomination, it’s this: Do not pick anyone unless he or she has a clear judicial philosophy that can endure the grueling punishment of a senatorial gauntlet.

I admired the story of Miss Miers’ extraordinary climb up the career ladder in the male-dominated world of law to head the Dallas bar, the Texas bar, the head of a major, 400-member law firm and even come close to heading the ABA itself. There was also her remarkable work ethic, her ability to master complicated legal cases in corporate law and the sweeping issues, judicial and otherwise, that she had to deal with as chief White House counsel to President Bush, not to mention her deep religious values.

It is hard to recall any modern president who has had such a close working relationship with a Supreme Court nominee. It was certainly clear from her admiration for the president that they agreed on most subjects.

Yet, despite the best of Mr. Bush’s intentions, her nomination did not pass muster with the president’s conservative base, which wanted more than just a promise of judicial conservatism — the base wanted it in writing, or at least to hear it from Miss Miers’ own lips. But, alas, little was heard on that score, and when she did drop hints about her beliefs in constitutional law, there were troubling after-the-fact explanations of what she said or didn’t say to this senator or that.

Her admission, and the suggestion from a Republican senator, that she needed to “bone up” on some of the finer points of constitutional law didn’t help, either.

But it was a revealing speech she gave in the early 1990s, in which she argued for “self-determination” in moral and religious issues — (i.e., abortion) about which the nation is deeply divided — that did her in. Pro-life groups, some of which had held their fire, let loose with a volley of attacks. Dr. James Dobson, the anti-abortion kingpin who had embraced her, suddenly had new doubts.

With Mr. Bush’s base deserting him on a pivotal Supreme Court nominee, support was eroding almost daily in the Senate. Miss Miers had triggered a rebellion in the party that was spinning out of control, and no amount of deft White House handling was going to stop it.

The denouement came from a White House head count in the Senate, where conservative Republicans, such as Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, were openly or privately expressing doubts about her nomination.

Miss Miers’ “self-determination” remarks were “troubling and raise concerns,” Mr. Brownback said the day before she asked Mr. Bush to withdraw her name.

Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana voiced uncertainty about whether he could support her: “My central question still remains to be answered: Is there objective, written evidence from prior to her nomination that fully shows she has a truly consistent and well-grounded conservative judicial philosophy?”

If there was a silver lining in her abrupt withdrawal, it ended a political family fight that Mr. Bush could ill afford at a time when his presidency and his party were under fierce attack on a number of fronts.

Before Miss Miers acted to spare Mr. Bush any more embarrassment, the president’s polls had sunk into the low 40s, including some erosion within his own party. His top aides were facing the threat of criminal indictment in the CIA leak investigation. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist were under criminal investigation. Congress’ job-approval scores were in the basement.

“This was tearing apart the conservative movement and the Republican Party, potentially doing longer-term devastation to Bush’s winning coalition,” Republican campaign strategist Scott Reed told me.

Other party veterans expressed similar relief that Miss Miers had ended the bloodletting. “This is an opportunity for conservative groups and the White House to patch up their differences and move forward,” said Frank Donatelli, the former Reagan White House political director.

Indeed, many of the conservative groups and leaders who had fought Miss Miers put out news releases last week saying it was time for the party to unite in preparation for the judicial, legislative and election battles to come.

Mr. Bush was already reaching out anew to his conservative base to heal the party’s wounds by calling for deeper spending cuts to offset the cost of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Still, Harriet Miers was more conservative than her detractors believed. If she had a strong suit, it was her evangelical faith and the testimony of her closest friends that she was a foe of abortion and would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. I think, in most cases, she would have voted with the Antonin Scalia-Clarence Thomas bloc and turned the high court further to the right.

But conservatives have waited a long time to win majority control of the court and they wanted someone with a proven record who could survive the bare-knuckled partisan battle that is the Senate confirmation process. My guess is, Mr. Bush won’t disappoint the second time around.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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