The Revolt of the Elites
Why a "trust me" from George Bush no longer cuts it
Even in an administration packed with appointees whose highest qualification for their posts seems to be their undying fealty to the president, George W. Bush's choice of Harriet Miers to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's Supreme Court Seat came as a shock. But probably not as shocking as what happened next: Conservative pundits, legislators, and intellectuals actually began to object, loudly.
Writing in The Washington Post, George Will charged that Bush was "reducing the Supreme Court to a private plaything useful for fulfilling whims on behalf of [the president's] friends," and that Miers was an affirmative-action pick whose only qualifications were "her chromosomes and their supposedly painful consequences."
Charles Krauthammer, who called the nomination "a sorry retreat into smallness," thundered that if Miers "were not a crony of the president of the United States, her nomination to the Supreme Court would be a joke, as it would have occurred to no one else to nominate her." Failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork Borked back, calling Miers' nomination "a disaster on every level." Pat Buchanan called her qualifications "nonexistent."
"If the president meant Harriet Miers seriously," fumed Ann Coulter, "I have to assume Bush wants to go back to Crawford and let Dick Cheney run the country… Bush has no right to say 'Trust me.' He was elected to represent the American people, not to be dictator for eight years." An equally irked Michelle Malkin surveyed the blogosphere and found mutiny in the air there too. More than half of Republican bloggers polled by Right Wing News say the nomination has made them view Bush less favorably, and a comparable number of Republican senators have broken G.O.P. omerta to voice doubts about Miers. There's even a "Stop Miers Now" website run by conservative talk host Michael Graham.
What's shocking here is not just the amount of internal dissent, but the vehemence with which it's being expressed. A few more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger expressions of doubt whether the former Texas lottery commissioner was the most qualified jurist (well, potential jurist) available would have come as no surprise. The uproar, however, seems to have utterly surprised the White House.
Yet it shouldn't have. Conservatives (and libertarians) have long had ample cause for powerful buyers' remorse about Bush. A bloated Medicare bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, the president's runaway spending—all are markedly at odds with core conservative principles. At a Club for Growth event during the Republican National Convention last year, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) complained that party leaders were "veering off…into the dangerous waters of big government Republicanism" and predicted: "As soon as we reelect George W. Bush, this debate will begin." With the election out of the way, conservatives are increasingly unwilling to swallow the discontent that was building well before anyone knew the name "Harriet Miers." Miers' nomination merely lanced the boil.
But perhaps a deeper problem is that in many ways, the entirety of the Bush Administration has been a faith-based initiative. For five years, Bush has asked allies: "Trust me." And, like Britney Spears, they have. When Bush cast Iraq as a major security threat, supporters assumed he must be acting on sound intelligence—and when WMD proved to be MIA, they were willing to assume he had been led astray by an inept CIA, rather than being the self-fulfilling motive force behind intelligence that painted Iraq as a bogeyman. When he demanded the authority to detain enemy combatants, they defended him on the premise that restraint and discernment would guide the use of that power: The president had knowledge we could not, and it was necessary to trust him to use it wisely. With so many of the central issues the administration had to grapple with cloaked in uncertainty, trust was often all Bush supporters had to go on.
But trust is what you fall back on in the absence of information. In many previous cases, even when conservatives were less than thrilled with the government's actions, they had room to afford Bush the benefit of the doubt. An ample share of the responsibility for the inadequate response to Katrina could justly be placed on inept local officials. The CIA dropped the ball on Iraq. On spending, perhaps Bush was doing the best he could given the political forces at work in Congress—building political capital and biding his time preparing to lay down some fearsome conservative kung-fu in his second term.
For Miers, though, there is nobody else to blame. The choice was as close as anything can come to being a pure exercise of executive judgment. And the president chose to pass over a panoply of highly qualified, intellectually serious candidates to reward a buddy with a patchy resumé. Republicans may opt to "trust him" that she will vote in a way that pleases conservatives—though they may wonder why he didn't pick any one of a number of nominees they wouldn't have to take on faith—but there's no question of "trusting" him about her qualifications: They're known, and they're paltry. If conservatives' rage at this seems strong and sudden, perhaps it's because it has implications beyond even the Court: It calls into question the wisdom of having counted on Bush's judgement all along.
As conventional wisdom has it, Democrats tend to be policy wonks while Republicans are more apt to emphasize character. Their confidence in Bush's policy agenda has all along been tied to their confidence in Bush as a person. Insofar as it's impossible to regard the Miers nomination as anything but a gross error in judgment—not a short-term sacrifice for long-term conservative gains, but simple favoritism—that edifice may begin to crumble.
If it does, George Bush will have a lonely four years ahead of him.
Julian Sanchez is an assistant editor of Reason. He lives in Washington, D.C.