How the Harriet Miers nomination undermined the Bush presidency

January 8, 2007, 4:14 PM UTC

Okay, Iraq and Hurricane Katrina played a role, too. But on the occasion of Harriet Miers’s resignation as White House counsel (announced Jan. 4, effective Jan. 31), I thought I’d finally voice a quirky, unprovable, and doubtless offensive-to-many intuition I’ve harbored ever since President Bush nominated her to become an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court on October 3, 2005.

The Miers nomination split the Republican Party, as everyone recalls, with most of the ideological conservatives–like Bill Kristol, David Frum, George Will, Kate O’Beirne, Charles Krauthammer–putting their collective foot down and taking the position that she was simply not up to the job. In my mind, that’s the moment when the wheels came off the George W. Bush presidency.

The big question dogging Bush all along had always been whether he himself was up to his job. He just never seemed to be playing in the same league as other presidents. Even the greatest scoundrels of either party, like Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, had him skunked when it came to knowledge of history, government or international affairs. The notion of President Bush ever trying to mediate a Mid-East peace agreement between two cunning, powerful, antagonistic statesmen – the way Jimmy Carter did at Camp David with President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachim Begin in 1978 – was just out of the question from the get-go. However you want to articulate the reasons, we can all agree that he wasn’t up to it.

Intellect is a complicated thing. It’s got lots of components and every individual has a puzzling mix of strengths and deficits. So Bush wasn’t necessarily “unintelligent,” whatever that might mean. In any case, for an American to suggest that the president was unintelligent seemed tasteless, ad hominem and unpatriotic. (Brits and Europeans weren’t as reticent.)

Still, the issue didn’t go away just because people held their tongues. Over time a consensus seemed to emerge that the only thing that could appropriately be said on the subject was that Bush was unusually “lacking in curiosity.” Yet it was more than that. There was also that stunted quality to his personality. The incessant macho posturing–“Bring ’em on!,” “Dead or alive!”–that seemed not just reckless and dangerous, but eerily immature. He evoked one of those royals in the Europe of yore who, through the rigid workings of primogeniture, found himself King at age 11. What other president in our history would have said, “I’m the decider”? Though the sentiment has probably been universal among presidents, the preadolescent phraseology is distinctly our W’s.

For a long time, the brilliant conservative ideologues who championed and defended the George W. Bush presidency professed not to know what I’m talking about. They dismissed those who broached the topic as Eastern Establishment elitists. The president was not simple, they maintained. Rather, he was possessed of “moral clarity.” Moral clarity was sometimes mistaken for lack of candlepower by relativistic, secular humanists, they explained.

And that was pretty much the party line all the way up till October 3, 2005, when Bush nominated Harriet Miers to assume the pivotal seat on the U.S. Supreme Court that Sandra Day O’Connor would be vacating. Then the charade abruptly ended.

William Kristol wrote in The Weekly Standard that Bush had proposed “an unknown and undistinguished figure . . . for an opening that conservatives worked for a generation to see filled with a jurist of high distinction. There is a gaping disproportion between the stakes associated with this vacancy and the stature of the person nominated to fill it.” (Emphasis mine.)

Well, exactly. And the “gaping-disproportion” line would’ve been a great one to describe Bush’s bid for the presidency in 2000, too. Kristol had unwittingly turned Harriet Miers into a George W. Bush surrogate. The concerns that couldn’t be voiced about Bush now surfaced by proxy. The great discussion was finally on, and this time the conservative intelligentsia wasn’t, well, playing dumb anymore. The whole electorate could see that the right-wing pundits had really known all along, but had kept mum on a calculated bet that they could adequately supervise the boy-president and keep him on the rails.

Remember when Miers went around to meet key Senators in their offices, and several painfully admitted that while she was “decent” and “competent” . . . um … er …? “You’ve got an issue here,” one Capitol Hill correspondent (for the Christian Broadcasting Network, yet) delicately put it on The Abrams Report, “where Harriet Miers has been a little, according to judiciary aides and others . . . a little slow on the uptake here in those meetings with the senators.”

Soon the president’s team came back at the ideological conservatives with the familiar artillery that had previously been reserved for Democrats. Bush/Miers stalwarts now mocked Kristol, Frum, Will, Krauthammer, et al., as Eastern Establishment elitists. On Howard Kurtz’s Reliable Sources Frum responded: “It just shows how the White House has declined, that they can’t write better talking points than that. I mean, in my day we would actually come up with an argument that worked. That’s just silly.” (Ah, that more gracious era, when White House speech writers concocted more plausible, specious talking points.)

Laura Bush then suggested that the anti-Miers crowd were “sexists”–much as Democratic opponents of Clarence Thomas had been tarred as “racists.” But Frum candidly and brusquely dismissed the First Lady’s comment for what it was: “obviously ridiculous.”

It must have been a liberating, cathartic moment for the conservative intelligentsia. For even though Bush drew down Miers’s nomination on October 27, 2005, the ideological right has never been able to resume its pre-Miers lock-step. As the Iraq war spiraled toward ever more undeniable fiasco, and the president’s moral clarity kept preventing him from adapting to reality, the conservative pundits continued to distance themselves from their president. Eventually, so did the Republican stalwarts who had unsuccessfully backed him on the Miers nomination. Yes, he’d been incompetent in handling Iraq. Yes, he’d been incompetent in handling Katrina. Pretty soon, you had the Iraq Study Group, whose mere existence–put aside its unanimous conclusions–was an unprecedented, bipartisan statement that our president just wasn’t up to the job.

Harriet Miers did all that? How can I prove it?

I can’t. But that’s how I experienced it. And it’s my blog and I’ll vent if I want to.