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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Miers Surprise

This has been one of those arguably rare days when being a political junkie gives one a better insight into a major news development than just watching it on television. Why? Because the reaction to Bush’s nomination of White House Counsel (and before that, his personal lawyer) Harriet Miers has been an extremely dynamic story, in ways that may have a major bearing not only on this particular event, but on the political landscape generally.Watching CNN this afternoon, the reporting about Miers was very muddled and misleading: she seemed to have broad bipartisan support in the Senate, though some conservatives were worried about her views. There was lots of RNC-talking-points-inspired talk about all the glass ceilings she had shattered in Texas legal circles, but little about her actual qualifications for the Supreme Court.But if you were following this via blogs, emails, and phone conversations, the story was very different. There was almost universal astonishment among the legal congnescenti, right, left and center, when Miers was named. Sure, she was on most of the lists of possible nominees that had been circulating for months, but virtually no one thought she’d actually get the nod.After the initial shock died down, conservatives began reacting very negatively, not just because her judicial philosophy was a mystery, but because of her slender resume. I don’t have the time to link to all these posts I read, but just go to redstate.org and National Review Online (especially The Corner) and read what they were saying this morning and most of the afternoon, and it’s pretty amazing. Conservatives were mocking her qualifications; conservatives were deliberately drawing the cronyist analogy to “Brownie;” conservatives were angrily denouncing the White House/RNC talking points about her.Here’s just one example: a post by National Review editor Rich Lowry at The Corner:

Just talked to a very pro-Bush legal type who says he is ashamed and embarrassed this morning. Says Miers was with an undistinguished law firm; never practiced constitutional law; never argued any big cases; never was on law review; has never written on any of the important legal issues. Says she’s not even second rate, but is third rate. Dozens and dozens of women would have been better qualified. Says a crony at FEMA is one thing, but on the high court is something else entirely. Her long history of activity with ABA is not encouraging from a conservative perspective–few conservatives would spend their time that way. In short, he says the pick is “deplorable.” There may be an element of venting here, but thought I’d pass along for what it’s worth. It’s certainly indicative of the mood right now.

The worm began to gradually turn mid-day; you could almost hear the humming of the spin cycle. At noon, I did something I can rarely stomach: I listened to Rush Limbaugh’s show, and this famously articulate if deranged Big Mouth sounded atypically confused and incoherent, wanting to pile on to the conservative line of “betrayal,” but holding back somewhat, apparently waiting for reassurance. And sure enough, by the end of his three-hour show, he had made time for an emergency appearance by none other than Dick Cheney (who also appeared on Sean Hannity’s show), who provided a personal pledge that Miers was rock-solid conservative.As the afternoon wore on, more voices supporting Miers spread across the conservative commentariat (Marvin Olansky and Hugh Hewitt in particular). And at day’s end, the Big Bertha weighed in with a qualified approval: James Dobson of Focus on the Family.So: given the trend, I would expect most conservative shrieking about Miers to die down tomorrow, but as Dobson’s fire-extinguisher statement indicated, there will be a big price to pay during the confirmation hearings: conservatives will demand some serious reassurance about her “judicial philosophy.” And those “reassurances” will provide serious ammunition to Democrats, who have generally and wisely kept their mouths pretty much shut today, other than vaguely positive statements about Miers’ apparent lack of ideological commitment, and general injunctions for more information and robust confirmation hearings.More broadly, you have to wonder why Bush nominated this particular non-judge. The White House clearly did not vet Miers with conservative activists and flacks in advance; their initial reaction is proof positive of that. As everyone concedes, her qualifications are questionable for a lower-court federal judgeship, much less The Big One. Miers virtually demands a sharp contrast with Roberts, whose resume was strong precisely on the points where hers is weak. And most of all, you’d think the White House would go far out of its way to avoid any possible linkage of this supremely important lifetime appointment to its pattern of cronyism in other appointments, given the enduring stain of “Brownie.”All day long, you half-expected someone to facetiously report that Bush gave Miers the big news with the words: “Harriet, you’re doin’ a heckuva job.” Given her personal links to Bush, and probably to the First Lady (who was a contemporary of Miers at SMU), the nominee is painfully dependent on the eroding degree of trust that conservatives, Republicans, the Senate, and the country still have for George W. Bush.We’ll soon know how it plays out, but I really don’t understand what Bush and Rove were thinking with this troublesome nomination.

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