As the furor over the Harriet Miers nomination has grown, I’ve been wondering when somebody would finally produce an insider account of how, mechanically, the choice was made. Sure, there are plenty of theories, but not much in the way of actual information.That changed today. While it’s not exactly a tick-tock account, John Fund in the Wall Street Journal provides a peek behind the veil, and in particular helps us understand why the White House seemed to be blind-sided by the powerfully negative reaction.Read it yourself, but the basic story line is this: the moment John Roberts was nominated to become Chief Justice, Bush and his staff decided O’Connor’s replacement would be a woman. Miers started the usual intensive vetting process for the women on the short list. Andy Card suggested to Bush that Miers herself be considered. Bush agreed. Card ordered Miers’ deputy, William Kelley (who had just been hired) to carry out a quiet vetting of Miers “behind her back.” Kelley soon came back with a green light. Card formally proposed her nomination to Bush; POTUS signed off; Laura Bush jumped on board. Card told the rest of the staff, and angrily overrode objections. Total secrecy about the pick was imposed. It was announced according to a rigid schedule, and then all hell broke loose.The two things that really stand out about this account are:(1) Where was the Helmsman, Karl Rove in all this? Fund doesn’t say, though there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence kicking around that the post-decision political vetting of Miers was even more haphazard than the vetting of her qualifications for the Court. Is this because Rove was distracted by other tasks (e.g., overseeing Katrina recovery and trying to avoid an indictment)? Or was it because nobody, even Rove, wanted to raise objections about an appointment to which Bush was very committed personally? Or, worse yet, did Rove simply think he could quickly sell Miers to conservatives on grounds of the usual Machine loyalty, underestimating the growing unhappiness of the Right with W.’s overall performance? All of these factors may have come into play.(2) Card’s back-door vetting of Miers by her own deputy almost guaranteed a sloppy process. As Fund points out, the conflicts-of-interest this step imposed on Kelley were formidable–investigating his own boss behind her back for a position that might pave the way to his own promotion, knowing all the while the risks of becoming the messenger who would be shot for bearing bad news about Bush’s close friend. And presumably, Kelley had to do a lot of this on his own, without the resources or time available to Miers in her own, official vetting process. That’s the big irony here: the famously process-obsessed perfectionist Miers got her big break from a process that glaringly diverged from her own standards.And the price she and the White House are paying for that lapse in discipline grows higher every day.I normally wouldn’t quote from one of those columns now sequestered by the New York Times as “premium content,” but David Brooks today penned a pitiless dissection of Miers’ columns for the Texas Bar Journal in the early ’90s that illustrates the kind of material a serious vetting of her would have revealed. He supplies paragraph after paragraph of samplings from “the largest body of public writing we have from her,” and even aside from Miers’ mangled syntax and a fatal addiction to passive verb constructions, it’s not a pretty sight. (My own favorite: “When consensus of diverse leadership can be achieved on issues of importance, the greatest impact can be achieved.” Word up.)As Brooks himself concludes: “I don’t know if by mere quotation I can fully convey the relentless march of vapid abstractions that mark Miers’ prose. Nearly every idea is vague and depersonalized. Nearly every debatable point is elided.”And so it goes, another predictably negative revelation about a nominee whose main distinguising features are her work habits, a genial personality, and a devotion to church, family and most of all W.My gut feeling is that Bush let her down by exposing her to this ridicule. And though it’s hard to tell at this point, he may be exposing Harriet Miers and himself to a humiliating experience in the Senate.
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.