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Understanding Miers


Who is Harriet Miers? I’d like to offer a big-picture way to think about Miers–admitting that I’m only reading tea leaves, because that’s all we can do. First, have a look at this piece by Texas liberal, Molly Ivins, which I think helps make sense of much of what we’ve learned about Miers so far. Ivins argues that Miers is strongly anti-abortion, yet otherwise more feminist than your typical Texas conservative. I think that’s right, although it does not mean that Miers will necessarily vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The Ivins piece helps makes sense of the feminist lecture-series mystery. That series is named after Louise Raggio, a prominent feminist lawyer from Dallas. Raggio and her fellow Texas feminists supported Miers in her bid to become head of the Texas Bar Association. They knew that Miers was anti-abortion, yet also knew that Miers was sympathetic to liberal feminism in other respects. In the very conservative Texas Bar Association, Miers was the most like-minded female president the feminists could get.

Miers’s bid to get the ABA to take a neutral stand on abortion was an attempt to keep the Texas Bar Association linked to the national organization, when the national group’s pro-abortion stand threatened schism. No doubt Miers is personally opposed to abortion, yet it’s important to note that her crusade for ABA neutrality had an additional, and perhaps even more important motivation–to keep the Texas Bar Association powerful, by keeping it tied to the national group.

Given all this, the lecture series looks like payback to Louise Raggio and her feminist allies for their political support. That would explain why Miers did not object to the one-sided trend of the speakers, even though she remained on the SMU Law School board. The lecture series was a gift to the left side of Miers’ political coalition. I don’t think it was a simple matter of payback either. By all accounts, despite her personal opposition to abortion, Miers is sympathetic to at least some of what her feminist allies believe. Does this include sympathy with affirmative action? Probably. After all, Miers got elected by feminists, who supported her chiefly because she was a woman.

The most telling thing about Miers is that she sees membership in the Federalist Society as excessively “political,” yet doesn’t think twice about associating herself with a lecture series that invites the likes of Gloria Steinem, Pat Schroeder, and Susan Faludi. That’s because Miers’ political career is based on being the one member of the conservative Texas establishment that liberal feminists can best work with. Miers has spent a lifetime being the sort of conservative who tries to swim within the “mainstream.” Miers would rather make a partnership with the far left, than risk being called an outsider on the right. Her almost obsessive silence about her political views probably derives in part from the fact that her own support base comprehends everyone from pro-life evangelical conservatives to Susan Faludi-like feminists.

Even when Miers went out of her way to make a conservative point–as in the drive for ABA neutrality on abortion–her underlying purpose was to keep her Texas group connected to the national center of “mainstream” liberalism (and her formal position was mere neutrality). And even if Miers’ advice to the White House to go slow on affirmative action and stem cells was based on a political calculation, it was a calculation that fit very comfortably with Miers’ long-term intellectual-political orientation. Whatever her personal views, Miers doesn’t feel comfortable openly positioning herself to the right of what liberals call the “mainstream” on social issues. My sense is that this makes Miers into something of a Sandra Day O’Connor figure–someone who could go either way on the big social issues. On the one hand, Miers’s personal instincts are conservative. On the other hand, she is used to working in coalition with, making concessions to, and often sympathizing with, feminist liberals. (David Frum’s excerpts from Miers’s writings broadly support this point.)

On affirmative action, I think Miers is unlikely to roll it back. Her election to the bar as the candidate of feminists, and her advice on the Michigan case, point to that. And now it emerges that Condoleezza Rice, may have had a key role in backing the Miers nomination. Rice is also one of the administration’s key backers of affirmative action. Like O’Connor, though, Miers would probably try to keep affirmative action programs mildly restricted. On same-sex marriage, I think Miers is likely to be a skeptic. She’s not an activist, and is more likely to go along with existing social innovations than to approve of new ones. On the other hand, if the country is in the sort of uproar over same-sex marriage that I think is inevitable at some point (with the states divided, and interstate marriages in litigious limbo), all bets are off. On abortion, Miers is clearly opposed personally, yet her history is that of working with, and making concessions to, feminists to her left. So I’d say that one’s a toss-up. In short, given her history of building coalitions with liberal feminists, I think Miers is likely to be an O’Connor-like figure, who could break either way on all the big social issues.