- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2005

From President Bush’s Tuesday press conference:

Q: Are you still a conservative?

A: Am I what?

Any port in a storm, especially after the storm has passed. I said the other day that the minute Hurricane Katrina hit, the media started scampering around like Munchkins singing “Ding Dong, the Bush is Dead.” They always do, and it always fails.

In terms of destroying Bush and the Republicans, Katrina was a total bust. Insofar as it has any political effect, it’s likely to make Louisiana less Democratic. That’s it.

So the problem remains: How to politically do in George W. Bush. And, if this last week is any measure, it seems Democrats will be denied that pleasure, and it will fall instead to conservatives to reduce the Bush presidency to rubble.

Conservatives are angry with Mr. Bush, and the theory is they’ll stay home next November and the GOP will lose Senate and House seats. Of course, conservatives have been angry about many Bush policies for a long time — education, immigration — but, in fairness to him, he campaigned as a massive federalizer of the school system and as a big pushover for illegal Mexicans. So we can’t complain we were misled.

On the other hand, he also said, when it comes to Supreme Court justices, he would appoint jurists in the mold of Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia — “conservative” judges or, at any rate, strict constructionists, who don’t claim, as so many judges do, to be able to detect in an 18th-century parchment constitutional rights to abortions and sodomy. Instead, the president nominated a lady named Harriet Miers.

Harriet who? Well, she served as his “staff secretary,” or, as her biography says, “the ultimate gatekeeper for what crosses the desk of the nation’s commander in chief.” Legally speaking, that makes her sound more Della Street than Perry Mason.

But don’t worry, she is, in fact, a lawyer. Indeed, for some years, back in Texas, she was Mr. Bush’s personal lawyer. But she’s not a judge, not a constitutional lawyer, or a legal scholar, or someone with any judicial philosophy or who has shown an interest in acquiring one. She is a pal of the president.

Conservative commentators have been withering about the inner-circle cronyism of the Miers pick. Where do I stand? To be honest, I haven’t a clue. A Supreme Court vacancy comes up and for a month or so every columnist is expected to be an expert on the jurisprudence of a couple dozen legal types he never previously heard of.

For what it’s worth, my sense is that Harriet Miers will be, case by case, a more reliable vote against leftist judicial activism than her mercurial predecessor, Sandra Day O’Connor. Why? Well, she’s a strong supporter of the right to bear arms.

The great Second Amendment expert Dave Kopel says you have to go back to Louis Brandeis 90 years ago to find a Supreme Court justice whose prenomination writings extol gun rights as fulsomely as Miss Miers. An old boyfriend, Judge Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court, says she packs heat — a Smith & Wesson .45 — which I can say confidently the other lady justice, the far-left Ruth Bader Ginsburg, never has. Miss Miers also is personally very opposed to abortion.

In other words, what seems to be emerging is a woman Mr. Bush responds to as a fellow cultural conservative and evangelical conservative (she’s a born-again Christian), rather than as a judicial conservative — a label Judge Robert Bork dislikes, quite correctly preferring we distinguish judges not as conservative or liberal but as originalists or judicial activists.

I find it hard to discuss Harriet Miers seriously in those terms, but on balance she seems likely to vote the right way for whatever reasons. She’s thus another representative of Mr. Bush’s and Karl Rove’s belief in incrementalism — that the Republican majority can be made a permanent feature of the landscape if it is built one small brick at a time.

Miss Miers is, at best, such a brick, at a time when conservatives hoped Mr. Bush would drop a huge granite block on the court. But, given that she started out as a Democrat and has been on the receiving end of partisan attacks against the administration for five years, she seems less likely than a detached effete legal scholar to be pulled by the remorseless drift leftward that has overtaken some other Republican Supreme Court nominees.

True, that’s little more than a hunch on my part. In the meantime, what’s left is the base’s distress and the perception of weakness on the president’s part.

The first is real and may cause problems in 2006, though I can’t see it costing the GOP its congressional majorities. As for Mr. Bush personally, he was the better of the alternatives in both 2000 and 2004. But, come on, the “compassionate conservative” thing was, in its implications, far more insulting to the base than the steel tariffs or the proposed illegal-immigrant amnesty or the judicial nominees.

Mr. Bush, it seems ever more obvious, is the Third Wayer that Bill Clinton only pretended to be. The Slicker reckoned that, to be electable, a Democrat had to genuflect rhetorically to some kind of sensible soccer-momish center. And he was right, at least insofar as without him the Democrats have been el stinko floppo three elections in a row.

But Mr. Bush, for good or ill, believes in himself as the real Third Way deal: it’s a remarkable achievement to get damned day in day out as the new Adolf Hitler when 90 percent of the time you’re Tony Blair with a ranch.

The president is a religio-cultural conservative who believes in big government and big spending and paternalistic federal intervention in areas where few conservatives have ever previously thought it wise. Not my bag, but, that said, every time I or anybody else have predicted he has blown it he has managed to eke out another victory. Even the sluggishness of the war on terror seems likely to be partially redeemed by the imminent fall of Baby Assad.

Given the transformational potential of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America and that the Democratic Party is out of gas, I think the Bush-Rove incremental strategy is way too limited. But it seems to work, and I would bet it does again on Election Day next year.

© Mark Steyn, 2005

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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