Conservatives wary of Miers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to fill the crucial swing seat on the Supreme Court appeared to play out by the book. Senators on both sides of the aisle were consulted. Key conservatives were given a list of three names, including hers, and asked for comment. For the most part, there wasn't any.

Yet when the announcement came, the criticism came from a direction few expected: deep within conservative ranks. And Mr. Bush's efforts this week to reassure his base is making rifts within this highly diverse coalition more apparent.

Social conservatives want assurances that Ms. Miers will share their views on flash-point issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and that she is genuinely one of them.

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Conservative intellectuals, on the other hand, want someone with the legal acumen to roll back the reach of judges.

If Bush's rally cry for Miers is beginning to echo across the megachurches of heartland America, it is falling flat in the urban think tanks that have defined the conservative revolution since the Reagan era. Insiders fear that the grand coalition that helped elect Bush is fracturing on the issue most thought would unite them against the Democrats and liberal interest groups. Instead, they're firing on each other.

"We were looking for somebody who could advance the cause of the right, move the court in our direction, and it takes a certain amount of intellectual power to accomplish that," says Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, one of the first of many conservative think tanks in Washington.

As a longtime conservative leader, he was consulted about the Miers nomination. "I will probably end up supporting her," he adds, "but I can tell you that ... the grass roots are just heartbroken by this nomination."

For social conservative groups, this week's reports that Miers is a genuine evangelical - and, in a conversion experience about the same time, a genuine Republican - may be winning back hearts and minds. After initial hesitation, they are now rallying behind her, albeit tepidly.

Under the radar, supporters pushed the point more aggressively with Christian conservative groups.

An influential blog by Marvin Olasky, a Bush adviser credited with framing the president's "compassionate conservative" agenda, makes the case that a lot about Miers can be learned from her "decade of service in a conservative church," where she taught Sunday School, made coffee, brought doughnuts, and was willing to do whatever needed doing.

She "totally committed her life to Jesus," and tithed 15 percent of her after- tax income to her church. "Nothing she's asked to do in church is beneath her," he writes, citing an interview with Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, who attended the Valley View Christian Church in Dallas with Miers. "She's an originalist - that's the way she takes the Bible and that's her approach to the Constitution as well."

Such testimonials aim to convince the faith community that Miers, although not on record in support of their key goals, is one of them and, once on the bench, will show it. After extensive lobbying by the White House, Focus on the Family Action Chairman James Dobson, an opinion leader among many social conservatives, gave some support to the nominee, although with reservations.

"President Bush pledged emphatically during his campaign to appoint judges who will interpret the law rather than create it," he said. "To this point, President Bush's appointments to the federal bench appear to have been remarkably consistent with that stated philosophy," he said in an interview for Focus on the Family's website.

Based on what's generally known about Miers - and Bush's personal knowledge of her - she is not likely to be the lone exception, he added.

But for movement conservatives not defined by faith, such arguments didn't go far enough. Manuel Miranda, a former aide on judicial nominations to Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee, says that conservatives in his Third Branch Coalition, representing some 200 groups, are also deeply disturbed by the nomination. "It's not about Harriet Miers. It's about what Harriet Miers is not. She could be reliably conservative and it wouldn't matter: she's not the most qualified nominee the president could nominate," he says.

Conservatives "close to the White House ... may be coming on board, but there's a serious disconnect between the grass tops and the grass roots," he adds.

"There is a sense among grass-roots conservatives that we fought too hard to settle for someone who is at best a stealth nominee, not on the record on core conservative issues," says Steve Elliott, president of grassfire.org, a conservative network based in Iowa that claims 1 million supporters on issues from banning abortion and low taxes to securing borders.

"We put a lot into the Bush presidency. He promised us someone like [Clarence] Thomas and [Antonin] Scalia. He backed away from what I think would have been a winnable fight," he adds.

But the sharpest darts against the nominee are coming from conservative and libertarian intellectuals, dismayed that Bush did not use the opportunity of this key vacancy to nominate a legal scholar like Reagan nominee Robert Bork, whose failed nomination in 1987 set off the court battles in the Senate.

In a headline that captured the gloom in many of the Capitol's conservative headquarters this week, William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, headlined his reaction to the Miers nomination: "Disappointed, Depressed and Demoralized." His choice of Miers reflects a combination of "cronyism and capitulation on the part of the president," he writes.

"The right is deeply split on this," says Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "The choice is a reflection of Bush's weakness. He is squandering this opportunity on a nominee who has no record that remotely equips her for the Supreme Court."

What concerns the intellectuals isn't just how reliable a vote the nominee will be on a set of issues, including abortion. They want to see someone equipped to do battle over constitutional principles - effective enough to change the balance on the courts.

Many recall the promises of previous Republican presidents that nominees would be faithful to conservative ideals, but fell short. This time, they're looking for proof.

"This nomination turns on the question of trust. The division among conservative groups and individuals is between those willing to trust the president and take his word that Harriet Miers is at least acceptable to them - and maybe a little better than that - and those that are not," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, in Ohio.

"Social conservatives are somewhat easier for the president to bring along, because what's important to them isn't constitutional principles, it's outcomes such as abortion or single-sex marriage," he adds.

In the run-up to this week's announcement, Mr. Weyrich says he and other conservative leaders were given a list of three potential nominees, including Miers, and asked whether they had anything against them. "Based on their records," he had objections for two on the list. But for Miers, "we didn't know anything about her. Nobody knew where she was coming from, so we couldn't tell them anything," he says.

That's why this week's outcry from conservatives over this nomination surprised the White House and its supporters, who had prepared talking points for an assault by the left.

"They've been trained by media consultants on how to deal with the left, but it's the right that's most disgusted with this nominee. They're having to adjust," says Mr. Miranda.

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