Despite outcry from pundits, Miers pick fits Bush's modus operandi

October 11, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Hell hath no fury like a conservative scorned. Voices that only months ago were praising President Bush's single-minded resoluteness now call upon him to flip-flop.

Within hours of his nomination of Harriet Miers to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat being vacated by Sandra Day O'Connor, the right wing of the punditry pantheon opened with choruses of complaint.

Their message, if I may paraphrase rapper Kanye West: George Bush doesn't care about right-wing people.

Or, more precisely, he does not care enough about them to suit such conservative commentators as George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Patrick J. Buchanan, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly and Ann Coulter.

The biggest fear: Ms. Miers may be a potential "female Souter," in Ms. Schlafly's words. Justice David H. Souter, appointed by President Bush's father, turned out to be a moderate or, as disappointed conservatives call him, a liberal.

Others say Ms. Miers is nice and smart and all that, but an intellectual lightweight compared with the heavyweights that the conservative movement has groomed for the last three decades or more, waiting for a moment like this to tilt the court to the hard right. "While Bush was still boozing it up in the early '80s," Ms. Coulter fumes, "Ed Meese, Antonin Scalia, Robert Bork and all the founders of the Federalist Society began creating a farm team of massive legal talent on the right."

What, they ask, was Mr. Bush thinking? Or was he thinking?

Well, anybody who has been paying attention to George W.'s development over the years ought to have a pretty good idea of the answer to that question by now. He likes Ms. Miers because:

1) He knows her.

2) She goes to church.

3) She's good for business.

"Cronyism," cry the critics. But one person's "crony" is another person's trusted friend. Mr. Bush is a people person. He's also a political animal. He cares more about people and politics than policies. He likes Ms. Miers because he has worked with her and thinks he understands her attitudes better and more reliably than his father understood Justice Souter's.

"Betrayal," cry conservative critics. But movement politics bore Mr. Bush. He's a man of action, not policy papers. The movement he cares most about appears to be organized conservative evangelicals, who largely stuck with him or remained silent after the Miers appointment was announced.

Most of Ms. Miers' major opposition came from the conservative pundits and think-tank elites, while warm praise came from James Dobson of Focus on the Family, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and David N. O'Steen of the National Right to Life Committee, just for starters. Hints that Ms. Miers is a committed right-to-lifer came from her friends and pastors at the conservative evangelical Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, where she worships.

Interestingly, some of the same voices who criticized Democrats for asking how Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s faith might affect his judicial decisions expressed open delight at the prospect of an evangelical Miers on the high court.

But if there's anything Ms. Miers has in common with Chief Justice Roberts it is their many years spent defending wealthy corporate clients. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Corporations need love too, and Mr. Bush gives them plenty.

Ms. Miers has an impressive record of pro bono work on behalf of the indigent, but she has spent most of her legal career working for a large Texas-based firm that focuses on corporate law, defending firms such as Microsoft and the Texas Automobile Dealers Association against consumers and other annoyances to corporate profit margins.

Chief Justice Roberts similarly has lawyered and lobbied for a long list of corporate clients who might turn up in future Supreme Court cases. Awkward.

Mr. Bush's choice of Ms. Miers broke the No. 1 rule of smart politics: Thou shalt not divide thy base against itself.

But I expect both to recover, as soon as some respectable Democratic opposition appears during the coming confirmation process. Nothing unifies Republicans like seeing one of their own under attack, as long as the attack is coming from Democrats.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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