Thursday, October 13, 2005

Harriet Miers might become Robert Bork yet. The White House yesterday “dismissed” the possibility that Miss Miers would ask the president to withdraw her nomination to the Supreme Court.

The conventional wisdom, which is not always wrong, holds that such a denial is an admission of the inevitable — merely to ask the question suggests the answer. The president’s spokesman seemed to take particular care with the language of denial: “No one that knows her would make such a suggestion. And no one that knows her record and her qualifications would make such a suggestion.”

Perhaps. But this was an answer to a question that was not asked. It’s George W. Bush, not Harriet Miers, who made the nomination, and it’s the president, not Harriet Miers, who will decide whether to withdraw. George W. is a stubborn man, which, as we have seen in his ruthless determination to fight the war on terrorism, is sometimes all to the good. But he can be an unsentimental leader, as all effective leaders must sometimes be. Whether Harriet Miers falls on her sword after making the principled stand, as Robert Bork was allowed to do, is a decision still to be made.

The chorus of skepticism is rising, and the voices are nearly all those of the president’s friends. The Democrats, rarely a disciplined gang of rogues, are this time obeying the first rule of politics: When your enemy is digging himself into a hole, stay out of his way. The Miers nomination has split the president’s conservative base as nothing else has done — not even the laggard protection of the nation’s southern border against the rising tide of illegal immigration has set off such a firestorm within the president’s lines. The New York Times reports — “suggests” might be the more accurate verb — that the Democrats “suddenly … see a possibility in 2006 they have long dreamed of: a sweeping midterm election framed around what they describe as the simple choice of change … ” If it comes to pass, it will be because the conservative coalition entrusted five years ago to George W. Bush was fractured, if not shattered.

“Can this marriage be saved?” asks Peggy Noonan, a faithful family friend, in the Wall Street Journal. “George W. Bush feels dissed and unappreciated: How could you not back me? Conservatives feel dissed and unappreciated: How could you attack me? Both sides are toe to toe. One senses that the critics will gain, as they’ve been gaining, and that the White House is on the losing side. If the administration had a compelling rationale for Harriet Miers’s nomination, they would have made it. Simply going at their critics was not only destructive, it signaled an emptiness in their arsenal. If they had a case they’d have made it. ‘You’re a sexist snob’ isn’t a case; it’s an insult, one that manages in this case to be both startling and boring.”

The nomination of Harriet Miers was one of stunning miscalculation, a miscalculation of what the president’s friends, the people who put him in the White House, expected of him, and a miscalculation about how he should go about his stated goal of restructuring the Supreme Court. The president’s intellectual friends, who have encouraged and nurtured judicial candidates through decades of study and preparation for just this moment, feel condescended to, as if they were told: “You want somebody who will vote right on abortion, OK, here’s a lady whose vote will be automatic.” The president’s evangelical friends feel patronized, as if told: “Hey, look, here’s a judge who knows the words to all six verses of ‘Amazing Grace’ and can keep to the tune of ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ without the help of the piano.” The president’s political friends feel betrayed: “You expected me to give you a defensible nominee, so trust me.” All the president’s friends live by the admonition of Ronald Reagan that is the first article of the conservative catechism: “Trust, but verify.”

The smart money is still on eventual confirmation, such is the weight — and remembrance — of presidential authority. But smart bettors are demanding odds. Neither should the president count on help from the Democrats who have said either semi-nice things about his nominee, or who have said nothing at all. Like all pols, they’re waiting to see what opportunities may lurk in the cracks and crevices of their opponent’s shattered base. If there’s a break in the fragile Republican line in the Senate, the Democrats will pour through it to embarrass the man they’ve been waiting to destroy. What a pity. None of this had to be.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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