The Miers Test

You’re a senator who wants to run for president. Do you dare oppose Bush’s nominee?

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During the John Roberts hearings, everyone in political Washington wanted to know what the Democratic senators running for president in 2008 were going to do. Would they support him and seem moderate and reasonable, or would they vote against him and grandstand for the Democratic base?

Now it’s the Republicans’ turn. With the nomination of Harriet Miers, White House aspirants in the Senate must weigh whether they should back the unpopular president’s unpopular choice or strike a bold move for principle (and the limelight). Some things for Sens. Bill Frist, Sam Brownback, George Allen, Rick Santorum, and John McCain to consider:

1. Be first or be quiet. Senators don’t get many chances for big moments. That’s one reason why they never get elected president. Even successful senators are relatively anonymous nationally. With the exception of celebrity senator/war hero/greenroom beret John McCain, the Republican senators seeking the presidency need opportunities to demonstrate their steely leadership qualities. So, Sam Brownback, this is your moment! Republican activists are angry at Bush. Take up their mantle and sally forth. You’ve already irritated the White House by sitting on the fence. What’s more to lose? But you’d better be first. Those in the Republican base who are angry with Bush are going to credit only the senator who shows the initiating act of conviction. Whoever comes in second is just a follower.

2. President John Ashcroft. The trouble with rushing out, or “acting on principle,” as they like to call it in the press, is that you can go too fast. If a senator moves to torpedo Miers just as Rick Warren, Newt Gingrich, Chuck Colson, and others seem to be rallying around her, he might get branded a loon. Be too pure in your principles, and you may win a membership to the gloomy club of principled GOP primary losers that includes Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan, and John Ashcroft.

3. Fredo, we just want to go fishing. George Bush plays politics with a pickax. Anyone who turns down the president’s nominee and very close friend at this moment of his high vulnerability will pay a steep price. President Bush will spend the next three years doling out the punishment. Will the most successful fund-raiser in politics shut off the candidate’s dollars? Will he ask his brother in the key state of Florida to support someone else? Bush can be bitingly clever when he wants to be and might do on purpose what Eisenhower did perhaps unintentionally when asked in 1960 what contributions Vice President Richard Nixon had made to his administration. “If you give me a week, I might think of one,” he said. That quip sent Nixon back to California for eight years. Bush could make life impossible for Frist, Allen, and Brownback if he wanted to. McCain, who has already been ruined once by the president (See: 2000 South Carolina primary), is immune.

4. And the Oscar goes to … The in-sorrow-not-in-anger pose is one the most effective but difficult acts in politics. If a senator is going to look like a leader by bucking his president on Miers, he’s going to have to give quite a performance. To keep from looking like an opportunistic turncoat, he’ll need to do some heavy sucking up to the administration before going after Miers. The White House will know that a senator has betrayed them when a floor speech begins: “George Bush has been a resolute leader fighting terrorism. He has appointed qualified strict constructionists to the lower courts and blessed us with John Roberts. He has kept his word by reducing the tax burden on American families. His hair is silky smooth. He is trim and handsome. He is kind to small animals. But …”