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It’s The Senate, Stupid


That New York Times article about the disgruntled Hill staffers is important in more ways than one. Beyond establishing that Miers could
indeed go down, the article subtly suggests tensions between Republican
staffers and their own Senators. That tension needs to be taken
seriously. When the history of the Miers nomination is written, it will
emerge that the Republican senate itself played a key role in the decision
not to go with an openly social conservative nominee.

This article from The Boston Globe, “For social conservatives, it just
doesn’t add up
,” is dead on. The real reason the president did this is that he believes he doesn’t have the votes to go nuclear in the senate and/or that the battle will be too politically costly, even if it succeeds. What’s more, I
believe that senate Republicans themselves share precisely the same worry.

Senate Republican’s know that nominating a strong and open social
conservative will set off a paralyzing battle, and virtually shut down the
rest of their agenda for the duration. The mammoth battle will also turn
the pressure now being aimed at the president onto the Senate’s Republican
moderates. At a minimum, that would mean exacerbating party divisions and
jeopardizing the majority’s congressional agenda going into a midterm
election. At worst, the internal squabbling would threaten the Republican
senate majority itself. Knowing this, I believe that senate Republicans
themselves begged the president for a stealth nominee.

The president believed he had found that stealth nominee in Harriet
Miers. He trusted her, because he’d known her for years. And no doubt she
shows her conservative face–which is genuinely a part of who she is–to the
president. But I doubt that Miers went into her meetings with George Bush
in 1998 and 1999 telling him in excited tones how happy she was to have
pleased her liberal feminist supporters by setting up a lecture series for
Gloria Steinem and Susan Faludi. The president was taken by surprise by
Miers long-practiced penchant for silence about her own complex political
sympathies. So the wobbly Republican moderates in the Senate, combined
with a stealth nominee who was less conservative than her own backers
believed, got us into this mess.

I oppose the Miers nomination. But I’m realistic enough to admit that the
sort of nominee I want would mean a politically dangerous Senate battle,
with real risks for the Republican majority. I think the stakes justify
the battle–and the fight would have the huge political plus of uniting and
exciting the base going into the mid-term elections. But Republican
Senators clearly have reason to fear the pressures such a battle will place
on them.

Republican office holders are always reluctant to go along with the
cultural battles craved by the base. Republican officials regularly beg
Ward Connerly not to come into their states with his petition drives
against racial preferences. And this is true, even though clear majorities
of Americans oppose preferences. The wimp out on this nomination by both
the president and the congressional Republicans is the ultimate example of
that familiar split between Republican office-holders and their base. What
the Republican officials need to understand, is that their base has been
willing to swallow that sort of wimp out for decades–all on the theory that
one day we’d get it back through this nomination.

For years, politicians of both parties have avoided difficult cultural
battles by passing the buck to the courts. Now we see the
consequences. Court nominations themselves become the focus of politics,
and when politicians try to pass the buck even on the most important
nomination, the base finally turns on them. Again, I believe that it’s the
Senate Republicans–every bit as much, or more, than the president–who need
to get the message that we demand a real battle on this court seat,
bruising and risky for Republicans as it will admittedly be.


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