Miers May Chart Bush’s Retreat to Center

The Democrats have to be pleased by recent events; they have clearly been skillful in exploiting cleavages in the Republican Party. The week and a half since the announcement of Harriet Miers’ appointment to the Supreme Court has been a difficult time for President George W. Bush and for Republican members of Congress.

But for many Republicans who make up the president’s majority, the challenges their leaders face may not excessively concern them and some may even like some of the course corrections the administration may have in store.

Miers is only the latest problem facing Bush. The bigger issue is that the solid base that gave the president a second term has been cracking. Month after month the polls highlighted increasing unhappiness on the part of Americans with the administration, but until late September roughly 75 percent of Republicans remained content with Bush’s performance. Finally, in the face of post-Katrina chaos, spiking gas prices, and continued deaths in Iraq, the president’s unstable political foundation was shaken all the way to its base.

Is the administration responding positively to the dissatisfaction within Republican ranks? It now appears that the nominations of Miers and John Roberts before her to the Supreme Court may well represent the first stages in an effort to move the administration in a new direction and put a fresh face on the Republican Party.

Last week, the Democrats gained tactical advantage and shook the GOP by simply saying that Bush’s choice for the Supreme Court looked good at first blush. Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, started by saying he liked Miers, indeed that he had recommended that the president consider her in a face-to-face meeting.

Such geniality is a new tactic for the Democrats. When Roberts was nominated, progressive groups breathed fire, charging that the longtime Republican justice department hand, who had earlier experienced trouble winning easy confirmation as a federal appeals court judge, would threaten sacred principles of privacy and liberal social governance. Democratic hostility made it easier for conservatives to rally around the nominee, despite the lack of a paper trail they are now demanding in the case of Miers.

When Miers was nominated, conservatives were caught short. With Democrats suggesting she might be fair and open-minded, what were conservatives to think but that perhaps she was not a true believer? The mysteries that intrigued Democrats made hardcore conservatives anxious. Miers wasn’t a member of well-established ideological cliques such as the Federalist Society, where conservative lawyers gather and Roberts once or twice dipped his toes. She was the president’s former personal lawyer and a corporate attorney who spent most of her career finding common ground between opposing parties. Sixty years old and still unmarried, she was called Harry, after her father, rather than Harriet by some personal friends. Internet postings have it that a few gay lawyers are among her social companions in Dallas. As a City Council candidate there 16 years ago, she appeared before a lesbian and gay screening group at a time when most candidates didn’t even bother to answer the questionnaire. Of course, she made no commitments beyond the generality that gays and lesbians are entitled to equal treatment, and even refused to condemn the state’s pernicious sodomy law.

Miers’ religious conversion to evangelical Christianity was made with a colleague at her the law firm—in fact right in their offices after hours. Was it a religious awakening or a career move? As the first woman to chair the Texas Bar Association, she turned back a right-wing effort to separate the state group from the national organization, even as she played an active role in persuading the national organization to retreat from its affirmative support for Roe. v. Wade, but only to a neutral stance. She settled for compromise—never a choice for right-wing ideological purists.

Her history as a someone able to work flexibly between extremes has convinced some Democrats that—as with Roberts—this represented the best that could be expected from Bush. Besides the blessing from Reid, her most important early boost came from the bi-partisan group of 14 senators who have held the balance of power in the Senate ever since Republican Leader Bill Frist overplayed his hand earlier this year by threatening to end use of the time-honored filibuster on judicial appointments. Moderates including Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine signaled from the start they saw no major problem lurking in the Miers nomination.

Meanwhile, right wingers are angry about Miers because they smell defeat. They wanted a right-wing purist and sense they aren’t going to get one. In a matter of days, the right-wing lions roared, calling her a “diversity” pick, an incompetent woman whose only qualification is cronyism. This nasty word suggests a personal relationship with the president led to the appointment rather than real ability. But her career makes this improbable. In a milieu where feminism is a bad word, she beat out men to advance to the highest levels of her profession. She made her mark without ruffling the feathers of the powerful men around her.

Bush clearly respects her abilities. He gave her critical tasks. In 2000, Harry helped defend the president’s contested victory in Florida. She has neutralized suspicions surrounding his service in the Air National Guard while Al Gore and John Kerry were in Vietnam. Bush trusted her to handle matters that uncontrolled could blow up and end his career. She got the job done.

It isn’t primarily cronyism that worries the right wing. It is the significance of the appointment in Bush surrendering the religious right’s cherished goal of reversing Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision guaranteeing a woman’s reproductive freedom. The militant conservative, Pat Buchanan, candidly described the problem on October 9 as a guest on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

“I am not sure the president the United States wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned,” he said. “His wife does not, his mother does not. He has retreated from Reaganism into the old politics of compromise and consensus.”

But, the old politics of compromise and consensus are precisely what moderate Republicans, in Congress and across the nation, want. Of course they want hard-right conservatives to stay loyal to the Republican Party, and only time will tell if that is possible.

In battleground states, Republican voices were philosophical, even pleased about the flap over Miers. In Jackson Michigan, an editorial writer at the Citizen Patriot observed: “We could see this nomination would be problematic when liberals like Sen. Reid were quoted praising the nominee.” The right wing, the writer continued, saw it as “an unforgivable lost opportunity. Words like ‘Betrayal, treachery and cowardice’ are in the air. A true conservative would have nominated a bold no apology conservative, but instead they get first John Roberts and second Harriet Miers. Clearly, both show unmistakable signs of moderation, temperance, restraint—-good qualities in our view.”

The Citizen Patriot recognized that the right flank of the party wants no deficits, less government not more, and a reversal of Roe v. Wade. But, the right is going to be disappointed. Bush has become, in that editorialist’s view, more “pragmatic, a president who lays aside those (conservative) principles when confronted by the awesome choices of national leadership.”

These words of praise from the Midwest suggest a possibility seldom mentioned. Harriet Miers or no Harriet Miers, the rest of the nation will shrug its shoulders and go on living their lives. When the election comes each November, Michigan will remain split between Republicans and Democrats. The religious foes of privacy will have to live in a United States with abortion rights, but one where the Democrats must still battle hard to win the hearts and minds of the voters to gain their share of power.

Thus, the fundamental task facing Democrats really isn’t changed by the feuds among Republicans. Conservatives who had embraced the President now don’t trust him, but it is unlikely they will bolt because that would be a classic case of cutting off their nose to spite their face. In all probability, the Republican rank and file will lose some of its enthusiasm, but that doesn’t translate into automatic Democratic victories.

The nightmare of a government takeover by the religious right and economic conservatives isn’t happening. The public will accept, even embrace, this new reality. It will make the job of creating a new Democratic majority harder. Many of us feared we were dealing with a religious fanatic, but in the hinterland Bush may well be on his way to becoming a “pragmatist.” Democrats will not win because the Republicans have embraced the religious right. The Republicans will not be seen as taking away a woman’s reproductive freedom; they may be mightily restricting it, even belittling it, but that is happening mostly off stage.