Friends and allies of the White House are now saying the Harriet Miers nomination has come to the same pass that the president’s plan for overhauling Social Security reached last spring. The nomination is no longer viable; all that remains is for Bush to accept this.
Careful observers of Bush’s tenure chuckle at such apocalyptic judgments. Bush has consistently ignored the rules of Washington and overcome dire predictions. No one thought Bush would pass two tax cuts. He passed four. Medicare reform was never supposed to pass. It did. When policy failures call for a sacrificial firing, Bush almost always resists. Smart people said he would have to sack Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld after the abuses at Abu Ghraib to get re-elected. He didn’t. There’s a predictable pattern: The chattering class revolts, Bush holds his position, and the storm passes. “Someone said, ‘It’s a steep hill to climb, Mr. President,’ ” Bush recalled about opposition to Social Security reform last spring. “Well, my attitude is, the steeper the better, because when you get up top, you realize you have left a significant contribution behind.” In the past, the fight has been worth it. Bush almost always gets his way and usually enhances his standing in the process.
But it’s one thing to push a program against the will of the system. It’s another thing to push a person. A person bleeds. At some point, Bush’s refusal to scuttle Miers’ nomination may turn into an act of cruelty. Forcing Miers to go forward increases the chances that her admirable career as a private lawyer, trusted friend, and able public servant will be eclipsed by the repeated calamities associated with trying to ram through her nomination. There is a reason Michael Jordan stopped playing baseball: He wanted to be remembered for succeeding at what he was good at, not failing promiscuously at something he wasn’t cut out for.
We may not be at that moment yet, but Washington is experiencing something like tissue rejection over Miers. The marks against the nomination mount with each passing day, and the resistance does not seem to bend in response to Bush’s determination and force of will. White House attempts to resuscitate Miers’ prospects this week with a showy sales campaign were almost immediately scuttled. She crossed signals with Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter over the right to privacy, which is code for you-know-what. He thought she’d endorsed precedent that found such a right in the Constitution. Her handlers said she didn’t, and Specter had to mumble that he must have misunderstood. Her meetings with other senators have also been underwhelming. In the latest wrong turn in this sad tale, Specter and his Democratic counterpart Pat Leahy found her answers to the committee’s questionnaire so lacking that they asked she try again, and to take the assignment seriously this time. Legal scholars are preparing to pick apart what she has written, arguing that her answers were not only thin but wrong. All of the individual problems with her nomination feed into the larger narrative that she’s just not up for the task.
The White House must realize by now that the Washington establishment can’t be blown off as readily as before. The lobbyists, strategists, and pundits turned out to be right about the slow death of Bush’s Social Security fix. They may be right about Miers, too.
Some have speculated that Bush’s determination is a product of the boom-and-bust cycle of the oil business. He had a patchy business history in that trade but kept the optimism and determination that you need to persevere in a world where you could face a long patch of dry wells. Bush never did find a gusher, but he had the mentality you need to keep looking.
There’s also another famous tale from Bush’s Texas years about knowing when to cut your losses. It was the 1970s, and the oil business in Midland was going belly up. Tom Dickey, a young geologist at Bush’s company, walked into his boss’s office hoping to be told there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Bush had been telling his employees that times were tough but they’d ride ‘em out. When Dickey arrived, Bush was ready to face up to reality. “Dickey,” he said, with his cowboy boots propped up on his desk, “You need to get out of here. You need to go where there’s some action.”
Perhaps sheer resolve will allow the “fog to clear” around the nomination, as one administration aide put it to me recently. But if the weather on the Judiciary Committee doesn’t change soon, the president will owe his old friend Harriet Miers the same candor and compassion he showed Tom Dickey.