Miers Nomination Divides Conservatives

The conservative movement has supported most of President Bush's agenda for five years. But the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court has exposed deep fissures in that alliance, and the criticism has widened to include a number of the president's policies.

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Through almost five years in the White House, President Bush was able to count on support from his party's conservatives. That is less true after the president nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Conservatives are divided and some now criticize the president on other issues. In this part of the program we'll examine the debate in the Republican Party. NPR's Mara Liasson reports on why so much criticism is coming now.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

George W. Bush had assembled a powerful and disciplined political coalition: social conservatives, economic conservatives, small government conservatives and evangelicals all united to push the Bush agenda. But the nomination of Harriet Miers has exposed deep fissures in that alliance. No Republican senator has yet to come out against her, but only a small handful have said they're going to vote for her and that hesitation reflects the deep dissatisfaction among Republicans. David Barton is a leading evangelical activist from Texas. He says the disagreements have been profound and emotional.

Mr. DAVID BARTON (Texas): You actually had White House officials in rooms with some of these social conservative leaders and there were shouting matches going back and forth--over guys that have been friends for 20 years. Guys in the administration that have been in the trenches with some of these conservatives, now they were yelling back and forth at each other.

LIASSON: Barton, along with many, but not all evangelical leaders, is supporting Miers. But Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, is not, and he has plenty of company among conservatives, intellectuals and activists. For him, the Miers nomination was a watershed.

Mr. RAMESH PONNURU (Editor, National Review): The moment that the Miers nomination was made is the moment that a lot of conservatives mentally filed for divorce from this administration. They are no longer seeing its fortunes as their fortunes and its setbacks as their setbacks. So, I mean, in many cases there are conservatives who are openly rooting against this president, who are hoping that Senate Democrats will really take on Harriet Miers and defeat this nomination. That's not all conservatives by any means, but that's not something that you had, even though there were strong disagreements, in the past.

LIASSON: For the past five years, conservatives managed to swallow those disagreements because they were all united by the anticipation of the conservative movement's greatest priority: moving the Supreme Court to the right. And for conservatives like Ponnuru, that meant nominating not just a conservative but someone with the intellect and the rhetorical gifts to actually shift the balance of power on the court; someone like Antonin Scalia or Robert Bork, whose Supreme Court nomination was defeated in 1987. In a scathing Wall Street Journal op-ed piece this week, Bork writes that President Bush is indifferent if not actively hostile to conservative values.

Mr. ROBERT BORK: Well, I don't know what he's done to conservatives. If you take a look at his wild spending, his Medicare entitlements, his effectively amnesty for illegal immigrants, his signing the Campaign Finance Act while saying he thought it was unconstitutional. On and on and on. I don't know of any domestic policies he has that could be called conservative.

LIASSON: For others, like David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, the nomination was the final straw.

Mr. DAVID KEENE (Chairman, American Conservative Union): The Miers thing is symptomatic of the real problem, which is greater than Harriet Miers, and that is that the administration has become less and less willing to work with its allies on the outside and more and more desirous of making certain that they simply follow along in lockstep and applaud everything they do. That's over. That's not going to continue.

LIASSON: There's another reason for the conservative revolt, says Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard. He points out that all that previous conservative unity didn't happen by accident.

Mr. FRED BARNES (Executive Editor, The Weekly Standard): If there's glue that held it together, the glue has a name and its name is Karl Rove. This has been one of Karl's greatest achievements, working with conservatives, and he calls them all the time and he meets with them. His job has been to hold the conservatives into this coalition and make it a majority coalition on almost anything the president wants. It's been a great success. Now with Karl distracted by the grand jury investigation, it's really coming apart. Would all these conservatives be flying off the handle, be pulling out of the coalition if Karl Rove were a guy fully concentrating on this right now? It would be much better for the White House if he were, but he's not.

LIASSON: According to David Barton, whether the conservative vote becomes nothing more than a family feud or escalates into something worse depends on Harriet Miers and how she rules on the Supreme Court, assuming she's confirmed.

Mr. BARTON: If she comes down on what they would consider to be their side on every issue, there's no civil war. The civil war exists if Miers is not what she was purported to be and not what White House people have been saying that she is, then that's where you're going to see the civil war.

LIASSON: Ed Morrissey is a conservative blogger and talk show host. He's agnostic on Miers and he's described conservatives like himself as caught in a political no man's land, watching with dismay as the loyalist army and the rebel alliance fight it out.

Mr. ED MORRISSEY (Talk Show Host): I think what's really ironic about that is it might be the conservatives that turn George Bush into a lame duck faster than the Democrats do.

LIASSON: And, Morrissey says, George W. Bush may have managed to accomplish by himself what Al Gore, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and George Soros all failed to do: crack the Republican monolith.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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