By James A. Barnes
October 25, 2005President Bush and his latest nominee to the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers, are taking a beating in the conservative salons of Washington.
"The White House approach to this nomination was, first, they chose someone who really infuriated the Republican base," scoffed conservative columnist George Will last Sunday on ABC News' This Week. To be sure, a group of Republicans are upset and disappointed over the Miers nomination. That set includes conservative pundits Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, and David Frum, a former Bush White House speechwriter who now writes a daily column for National Review Online and is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
But while these conservative commentators may have big megaphones inside the Beltway, it's not at all clear how much of the Republican rank and file they really speak for. In fact, a significant part of the GOP base seems quite content with the Miers nomination.
"Bottom line is, I'm not too worried about it, because I trust George Bush," said Lisa Stevens, a Greenville, S.C., mom who is active in her local charter school. But Stevens has driven more than just a carpool in Greenville; she's driven votes. In 2000, she was co-chair of the Bush re-election campaign in Greenville County. And that's the base of the GOP base -- a county that routinely produces the biggest Republican vote margins in this red state and that is home to Bob Jones University, an evangelical institution that posts daily Bible readings on its Web page.
The "trust factor" goes a long way toward explaining why, out in South Carolina's grassroots, much of the conservative base actually sounds pretty pleased with Bush's choice of Miers. "We can trust him to send our children in harm's way, and [trust him] when we vote for him, but we're not going to trust him to make appointments to the Supreme Court? I don't think so," said Kristin Maguire of Clemson. Maguire, a self-described "stay-at-home mom" of four daughters, found time to answer the GOP's call in 2004. She ran the party's volunteer phone bank in her hometown during the final four days of Bush's re-election campaign. For Maguire and many of her volunteers, "judges were something that motivated people to work in those phone banks."
Maguire gushed, "I'm excited. I think Harriet is going to be incredible." And because Miers has never wielded a gavel, "I think she's going to bring insight and direction that the Court lost in Chief [Justice William] Rehnquist," she added. "Gosh, she's not part of the D.C. intelligentsia."
Not every member of Bush's base in South Carolina was initially thrilled by the Miers nomination, however. Terrye Campsen Seckinger, a member of the State Board of Education, admitted that at first she was disappointed that the president had tapped Miers to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Seckinger's personal favorite for the job was former Solicitor General Theodore Olson. But Seckinger, who is a Republican activist in Isle of Palms, near Charleston, added that after thinking about the difficulty that someone like Olson, who argued before the Supreme Court on Bush's behalf in Bush v. Gore, might have in getting confirmed, and after reflecting on the president's choice, she came around.
"It is his call," she said. "When you pull back and look objectively at this -- and so many Supreme Court judges have not sat on the bench before, like Rehnquist -- that creates a different framework to look at Harriet Miers."
Seckinger said she also thought about her own selection by the governor to sit on the state juvenile parole board. "The governor said, 'I'm appointing you because I think you have good judgment,' " recalled Seckinger, who added that she was not the only board member who lacked any formal legal training.
"We did just fine without being attorneys," she said. "When George Bush looked around at the people he knows, he chose someone he knows in his heart has the characteristics that are needed to be a strong judge and have integrity on the Supreme Court."
All of this doesn't sound like much of a revolt on the right. And if the calls to the offices of South Carolina's senators are any measure, the Miers nomination isn't provoking much of a reaction among their constituents. "It's about par for the course on a current issue," said Wesley Denton, a spokesman for Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. "It doesn't appear to be stirring either way on our phones."
"The view in South Carolina is, 'Let's give her a chance,' " said a spokesman for Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. "We have gotten about 100 calls, total. In fact, we've gotten more correspondence about a horse-slaughter amendment than we have about her nomination."
In Iowa, veteran Republican political strategist Doug Gross, who is well connected to conservative activists in his state, painted much the same picture of reaction to the Miers nomination. "The people I've visited with who were most concerned about judgeships are comfortable with this," Gross said. "We may have this fractured conservative intelligentsia, but not a fractured base. At least, I don't sense it."
Gross said he thinks that one reason many of the party faithful have so readily accepted the Miers nomination might be the nature of Bush's re-election effort, which the president largely made a referendum on his character. "A big part of the campaign was designed to motivate and get the out the base, and it was done in a way that was almost personal to George Bush, so those ties are very strong," Gross observed.
"What the conservative base in the hinterlands is looking for is someone who doesn't legislate from the bench," he added. "To them, you don't have to be a constitutional scholar to do that. To them, that's common sense, not an indicator of intellectual prowess."
And recent public-opinion polls tend to back up Gross's assessment. The Gallup poll conducted for CNN and USA Today on October 13-16 found that 73 percent of Republicans want the Senate to confirm Miers, while only 16 percent want the Senate to reject her. Those figures are almost identical to the 73 percent to 12 percent GOP split in favor of the nomination of John Roberts in a CNN/USA Today poll conducted August 5-7, as he was being introduced to the country.
Likewise, the two polls show that those on the ideological right are giving Miers about the same level of support they gave Roberts. In the latest CNN/USA Today poll, 61 percent of self-described conservatives backed the former White House counsel's nomination. In the August survey, Roberts got 67 percent support from that group.
A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on October 7-10 found that 54 percent of conservative Republicans backed Miers's confirmation, 37 percent were undecided, and just 9 percent were opposed. Two Pew polls conducted in early September found similarly low levels of opposition to Roberts -- 14 percent and 6 percent -- while 62 percent and 77 percent of conservative Republicans supported his confirmation.
"While there's a little less enthusiasm [for Miers] among conservative Republicans, it certainly isn't in freefall," said Pew Research Director Andrew Kohut. "It isn't the kind of reaction you're getting from the conservative Republican political class here" in Washington.
Kohut quickly added that the conservative Republican opposition to Miers appears to have little to do with concerns about her credentials as a conservative, but rather with the barrage of negative press describing her as a Bush crony.
Karlyn Bowman, an AEI resident fellow and public-opinion analyst, also downplayed the less enthusiastic response of conservative Republicans toward the Miers nomination that shows up in some polls. "This could reflect initial reporting about her, which was much less positive than it was for Roberts," Bowman said. "But it may also reflect a deeper discontent with Bush that goes far beyond this nomination."
Some elite conservatives worry that, although Bush was willing to push the envelope to pursue his agenda during the first term of his presidency, he's now backing down -- tabling his venturesome plans for Social Security, for example, and doing little to control domestic spending.
To Beltway conservatives, the Miers nomination is another manifestation of Bush's new tendency to pull his punches.
"A lot of conservatives were basically disappointed he picked someone who was not obviously stellar and wasn't defined enough on the constitutional issues to bring about a crystallizing moment in the form of a battle," said Clark Judge, a former speechwriter for President Reagan.
Likewise, conservative activists who are already looking toward 2008 are somewhat restive over Miers. "Everywhere we go, nobody likes this nomination," said an adviser to one of the 2008 Republican White House hopefuls. "It isn't a seething anger. It's just disappointment. I think people were geared up for a fight over Janice Rogers Brown or Priscilla Owen, someone who had a clear record of conservative principles. And that is not the case with this nominee."
Some Republican activists undoubtedly would like to go on the offensive over a Supreme Court nomination, especially at a time when their party is on the defensive on issues like Iraq and the simmering scandals surrounding some of their key leaders. But while Will and Kristol and Frum are sounding their trumpets about Miers, few conservatives out in the hinterlands seem to want to do battle over her.
"For me, personally, I've got so much on my plate as someone who's running a charter school," said Stevens. "Yes, I want good conservative judges, but I did my duty when I voted for George Bush."
By James A. Barnes
October 25, 2005