Politics & Policy

Conservative Vs. Conservative: Inside The Battle Over Miers

Groups that usually support the White House are fighting among themselves.

On Monday morning, October 3, not long after President Bush announced his decision to nominate Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, Wendy Long of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network appeared on CNN to defend the choice.

”I think that Harriet is just a bit of an unknown quantity to some people,” Long said. “But I think as she becomes better known, more is learned about her, and certainly as she testifies before the [Senate Judiciary] committee, I think there will be an increased comfort level with her.” Long defended Miers against the criticism that Miers had never been a judge, and also confidently predicted that Miers would “very modestly and strictly interpret the Constitution and laws.” In the next 24 hours, Long spoke highly of Miers in interviews with other press organizations, including Fox News, MSNBC, C-Span, the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and the New York Sun.

And then…nothing. Despite being known as an effective advocate on television–and indeed, being recommended by the White House to producers looking for such an advocate–Long disappeared from the public debate. A search of the Nexis database of media reports shows virtually no quotes at all from Long after her initial commentary on the nomination.

As it turns out, there was a good reason. According to knowledgeable sources, on October 3 the Judicial Confirmation Network, like other groups formed to support Bush judicial nominees, was unprepared for the Miers nomination. A hasty decision was made to publicly support Miers on the grounds that the choice was the president’s prerogative. But when the full implications of the nomination became known–particularly Miers’s apparent lack of a guiding judicial philosophy–the Network’s key financial supporter made the decision to step back from the issue. There would be no up-front, high-profile support for Miers. It wasn’t a controversial decision, at least inside the group; members of the Network’s staff, not at all eager to support Miers, were, in fact, relieved.

The story illustrates the dilemma faced by supporters of the Bush White House as they confront the reality of the Miers nomination. Three groups–the Network, Progress for America, and the Committee for Justice–have dealt with the nomination in different ways, but all have been forced to confront the reality that many members of the conservative legal establishment believe the Miers nomination was a bad choice–at the very least, a wasted opportunity–and are not inclined to defend either the nominee or the president.

The Committee for Justice, founded to respond to Democratic opposition to Bush nominees to the federal courts of appeals, has publicly supported the Miers nomination, but informed sources say that support has been a half-hearted, unenthusiastic affair. Unlike the situation with the Judicial Confirmation Network, however, there have been no serious issues with the group’s financial backers. While the Committee has “gotten a couple of letters and e-mails [from smaller donors] saying, ‘Don’t spend my money on this,’” says a knowledgeable source, the group’s “major donors, business-related donors, are still on board, are still fine.”

But the fact that the money has not dried up does not mean things are going smoothly. Take, for example, the job of finding legal experts willing to talk to the media about Miers. Anticipating a knock-down-drag-out fight with Democrats over a high-powered conservative nominee, the Committee, according to the source, “had a stable of about a dozen heavyweight conservative lawyers who were ready to go on TV, were ready to jump in with both feet this time around.” But after the Miers nomination, according to the source, “only a handful of them have come forward to say, ‘I’m in, send me in.’”

A third pro-nominee group, Progress for America, has been the most openly active in supporting Miers. An official told National Review Online that the group’s financial supporters have remained loyal. “Our fundraising during the early stages of the Miers nomination equals that during the early stages of the Roberts nomination,” the official said. “There is really no difference in the amount of money coming in.” But Progress for America has experienced the same difficulties that other groups have faced in lining up speakers to defend the nomination.

In addition, there is no doubt that the Miers nomination has sewn discord and discontent among the groups that are nominally in favor of her confirmation. The groups hold a daily strategy conference call which, in the last ten days, has at times become contentious. “We’ve all had some fairly nasty exchanges,” says one person familiar with the calls. In such an environment, name-calling is not terribly unusual. For example, one conservative said of Progress for America, “They are a bunch of political hacks and they do what the White House wants. You could nominate Humpty Dumpty for the Supreme Court, and they’d be out arguing for Humpty Dumpty.” That’s not the kind of thing one hears in a well organized, unified movement.

What is perhaps ironic about the Miers situation is that the groups had carefully discussed what they might do if the president chose a nominee not to their liking. ‘This debate came up before Roberts, when we were fearful of Gonzales,” says one source, referring to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, long regarded as an unacceptable choice by many conservatives. Some groups, like representatives of Progress for America, made clear they would support Gonzales wholeheartedly. Others weren’t so sure. But at least they were thinking about the possibility; a Gonzales appointment, after all, would have been no surprise. When the president stepped into the Oval Office on October 3 to announce his choice of Miers, on the other hand, nobody was ready. They still aren’t.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the new book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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