The astonishing thing about President George W. Bush’s choice of Harriet Miers for a seat on the Supreme Court is that he made the same mistake that sank his father’s presidency. When George H. W. Bush agreed to raise taxes after promising “no new taxes,” conservatives and Republicans felt betrayed, and simply wrote him off. The lack of support from a group that should have been his base was one of the key reasons for his loss to Bill Clinton in 1992. Yet conservatives should keep in mind that we know little about Miers, and abandoning this president at this time–as his father was abandoned–could result in the collapse of support for his major domestic initiatives as well as his all-important Iraq policy. The latter, in particular, would be a true catastrophe in this nation’s war on terror. This does not mean that conservatives must accept Miers, but that they should make some distinctions; opposition to this unfortunate nomination should not result in diminished support for the rest of the Bush agenda.
The nomination of Miers is, of course, disappointing. Apart from the cronyism and the unflattering comparison with John Roberts, there is the befuddling political judgment it implies. If Bush had nominated a true intellectual conservative, one of the many judges now sitting on the federal appeals courts, he would eventually have won a bruising fight with Senate liberals, and this victory would have restored his tarnished prestige after Katrina. If he had nominated a Hispanic judge with conservative credentials, he would have had the distinction of showing our Hispanic citizens that they’ve arrived in the American mainstream, and built support in this community for the Republican party. Like the 13th strike of a clock, this nomination seems wrong in itself and calls into question everything that went before. Republicans and conservatives can hardly be blamed for their despair.
Still, we know very little about Harriet Miers. The president says she is a conservative, and we know little to the contrary. Can anyone say with authority that he knew Clarence Thomas would one day be a conservative icon? For these reasons, it is hard to argue that the president’s nomination of Miers is a betrayal of principle as serious as his father’s. Yet, from what I’m hearing from my conservative friends, this nomination seems to have a last-straw quality. If most conservatives ultimately see it this way, we’ll all be in considerable trouble.
Americans’ support for the president’s Iraq policy has been steadily eroding. Even as he was reelected last year, half the country thought he had no clear policy and that the United States was losing the war in Iraq. In some polls today, more than half of all Americans think we should withdraw the troops from Iraq. Until now, the president’s base has been firm in support of his foreign policy; almost 90 percent of all Republicans until recently have continued to support the war in Iraq. Since the Miers nomination, however, the president’s approval rating in polls has fallen further, possibly reflecting some general deterioration in his base as a result of his Supreme Court choice. The president’s support among Republicans is now around 80 percent, with some polls showing a decline into the 70s. If this is a harbinger of greater losses in the future, a collapse of the president’s policy in Iraq would not be out of the question. Congress, never known for its courage under fire, is already wavering in the face of adverse public opinion. The recent vote in the Senate on the treatment of terrorist prisoners was widely interpreted as a loss of support for the president’s policies in the war on terror. We should recall that the American involvement in the Vietnam War was ended, despite the opposition of President Ford, when a demoralized and rebellious Congress voted to end appropriations for further defense of South Vietnam.
Even so, most thoughtful military and foreign-policy observers see a premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq as a catastrophe for U.S. world leadership and a huge victory for the jihadists. If the United States can be forced by terrorism to withdraw from Iraq, the lesson for the jihadists will be clear: Americans can also be forced by terrorism to withdraw from the rest of the world. That has always been bin Laden’s goal; if terrorism seems to have caused us to withdraw from Iraq, that will engender terrorism here. In the face of this, conservatives and Republicans who are throwing in the towel on President Bush because of their disappointment over the Miers nomination should step back, take a deep breath, and consider what’s ultimately at stake.
–Peter J. Wallison is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was White House counsel for President Reagan.