Politics & Policy

McCain’s Blunder

A liberal minority in the Senate will have the upper hand.

I am hearing two primary arguments for Harriet Miers by those who are close to the president:

1. The president knows her, believes she is the best candidate, and we should trust him because his past judicial picks have been excellent; and

2. There are not enough Republican votes in the Senate to win an ideological fight over a nominee like Michael Luttig, Edith Jones, or Janice Rogers Brown.

I and others have already addressed the first point at some length over the last several days. As I wrote Monday morning in Benchmemos:

The president and his advisors missed a truly historic opportunity to communicate with the American people about their government, the role of all three branches of the federal system, and the proper function of the judiciary. More importantly, they have failed to help the nation return to the equipoise of our constitutional system. And the current justices whose arrogance knows no bounds will be emboldened by this selection. They will see it as affirmation of their “extra-constitutionalism.” The president flinched. …

Unfortunately, no new information has been presented to change my view.

But the second argument about the impotence of the Senate Republicans is worth some discussion, too. The fact is that this Gang of 14 moderates, led by Senator John McCain, did make it much more difficult for the president to win an ideological battle over a Supreme Court nominee. The Democrats did, in fact, send warnings that they were prepared to filibuster the second nominee. And under such circumstances, the president would have needed 60 votes to confirm his candidate, not 51.

Lest we forget, Majority Leader Bill Frist and the overwhelming majority of his Republican colleagues were poised to defeat the unprecedented and frequently used (or threatened) filibuster tactics that had been unleashed against President Bush by the Democrats to weaken his appointment power. The big media editorialized against it. George Will wrote at length (albeit unpersuasively) against it (see here and my response to him here). And Bill Kristol’s favorite presidential candidate in 2000, John McCain, the leader of the Gang of 14, was all over the media making clear he would torpedo such an effort. And that’s exactly what he did. This in no way excuses the president’s blunder in choosing Miers. But the ideological confrontation with the likes of Senator Charles Schumer and the Democrat left that many of us believe is essential, including Will and Kristol, was made much more difficult thanks to the likes of McCain and the unwillingness to change the rule before any Supreme Court vacancy arose. This president has been poorly served by his Republican “allies” in this regard. Bush is the first president who has had to deal with an assault of this kind on his constitutional authority. And unless and until the filibuster rule is changed, a liberal minority in the Senate will have the upper hand.

Today the president would have to persuade seven of the most unreliable Republican senators to trigger the so-called nuclear option in order to clear the way for an up-or-down vote for, say, a Luttig. It is not at all certain or even likely that Lincoln Chafee, Olympia Snowe, and/or Susan Collins–the most liberal of the seven–would have voted for the Senate rule change for the purpose of confirming a solid originalist. And it’s likely the Democrat leadership would have succeeded in convincing at least some (if not most) of the seven Democrat moderates to oppose a rule change. I have no doubt that this was part of the White House’s political calculation. And it’s possible the president didn’t want to limp into this fight. That’s no excuse. But McCain–who wants to be president and has now endorsed Harriet Miers–and his cadre must not escape scrutiny for their blunder.

Mark R. Levin is author of the best-selling Men In Black, president of Landmark Legal Foundation, and a radio talk-show host on WABC in New York.

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