On October 3, 2005, President George W. Bush announced his intention to nominate his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. On October 27, after vigorous statements of opposition from conservatives and quiet expressions of dismay from Republican senators, Miers withdrew her nomination.
Conservatives and Republicans had no grudge against Harriet Miers. They simply thought she wasn’t a first-rate candidate. They were confident that Bush, the Court, and the country could do better. They were right. President Bush then nominated Samuel Alito for the position. Alito was confirmed by the Senate, and now serves with great distinction on the Court.
We may, as George Orwell observed, “have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” But there isn’t an intelligent liberal, or for that matter a sentient one, who doesn’t know, after last week’s confirmation hearing, that Chuck Hagel isn’t a first-rate candidate for secretary of defense. He isn’t even a second-rate candidate. Has there ever been a more embarrassing confirmation hearing than Hagel’s for a major cabinet position? For a minor cabinet position? For a sub-cabinet position? We don’t know of one.
Like Hagel, Miers was nominated by a recently reelected president at the height of his powers. But that wasn’t enough. Critics across the ideological spectrum were offended not just by her slight résumé, but by the president’s seeming indifference — or even contempt — for both the institution of the Supreme Court and the norms of “advise and consent” that her nomination bespoke. As if the fact that she was his preference — and his friend — were sufficient to recommend her to an office of great moment.
Hagel’s résumé isn’t quite so thin. His personal chumminess with the president is not so obviously the prime force driving his nomination. But unlike President Bush, who was wise enough to let Miers withdraw before hearings could vindicate his critics, President Obama has let Hagel flounder so badly that Senate Republicans and Democrats alike should think carefully about just how much respect the president has for the Pentagon — or for them.