Thursday, October 27, 2005


Let’s acknowledge a couple of things: 1) Loyalty is a fine thing; and 2) The Bush administration has made being loyal pretty damned difficult the last few months.

As the band of Miers defenders (or neutrals) continues to dwindle, with my fellow Standard contributors Captain Ed and two thirds of the Powerline trio urging a retreat, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Miers end-game is afoot. Harriet Miers will not be going to the Supreme Court. That’s a good thing.

And the Bush administration has been wounded. That’s a bad thing. But if you shoot yourself in the foot, you’re going to walk with a limp for a while. Frum called it a major misstep and an unforced error the day the nomination came down; can anyone honestly disagree with that assessment?

A lot of the damage to the president has come from his own side. That’s what made this mess all the more dispiriting. But the president did pretty much force the conservative punditocracy’s hand. A full-throated defense of Harriet Miers was never possible. The best defense boiled down to, “She doesn’t seem too terrific, but let’s give the president the benefit of the doubt.”

There is a problem with this event weakening the White House. The war in the Middle East is far from complete. In the past several days, the U.S. had a firefight with Syrian troops, it was confirmed that Syria was behind the Hariri assassination, and Iran had an “End to Zionism” celebration where the soon-to-be-nuclear power pledged to wipe Israel off the map. In other words, the region still has its share of pathologies and hosts regimes other than Saddam’s that are in dire need of toppling.

In other words, it’s time to move on. For those of us who have been picking on the president the past couple of months, it’s a good time to recall that, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, you go to war with the president you have.

And it’s also time for the White House to get it together. This week will probably be rock bottom, what with the indictments and the Miers fiasco both hanging heavy in the air. The president pledged in the days after his re-election to spend his political capital. This he has done, and often unwisely.

It is time for the White House to earn more political capital and there’s only one way to do that - through bold and wise leadership. This has been a terrible year, but Lincoln had some rough times and Reagan hands don’t look back at 1987 and smile.

The White House can build out of these ruins. It’s time to get started.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

Dean Barnett

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


It’s been a long time since we spoke, and I think this is a good time to say what I hope will be my final words about the dispiriting Harriet Miers affair.

The Miers pick outraged many conservatives. There are a few reasons for this which I’ll label “Principled” and “Less Principled”:

1) PRINCIPLED - The Miers pick represented the fulfillment of a quota, namely the quota that dictates that the Supreme Court seat in question belongs to a member of the fairer sex. Conservatives don’t like quotas. It’s almost a litmus test; if you endorse quotas, you’re almost by definition not a conservative.

2) PRINCIPLED – The Miers pick stuck a thumb in the eye of all those who favor meritocracies. Theoretically, the Supreme Court should consist of the nine greatest legal minds in the land. The quality of Harriet Miers’ mind is a mystery. Yes, she possibly may be so smart that she makes Antonin Scalia look like Pauly Shore, but the point is that in her 61 years she has done nothing that would cause one to logically infer such a thing. Needless to say, conservatives favor meritocracies. A meritocracy would not have selected Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court.

3) PRINCIPLED – The Miers pick reeked of cronyism. Miers got the nod because of her relationship with the president. That seemed an unfortunate way to determine who got the important jobs. We had a lot of fun ridiculing Bill Clinton’s Arkansas mafia of nincompoops like Webb Hubbell for eight laugh-filled years; it grated to see our president play the same kind of game, but only in a more obnoxious way, doling out a position of such import to someone based on their personal friendship.

4) PRINCIPLED – Miers is not up to the job. I don’t think a debate on this is really fruitful. As a judicial quantity, she’s an unknown. Could she be a good Supreme Court justice? Perhaps, but there’s nothing that dictates yea or nay. However, it is a reasonable suggestion that before being nominated for a seat on the court, the potential nominee’s adequacy for the task at hand should be a given.

5) LESS PRINCIPLED – Looking at things from an outcome based perspective, Harriet Miers may not be “conservative” enough.

Quite frankly, I don’t think any of the first four points can be even minimally rebutted, and I think they’re all extremely significant. The Miers nomination was at best woefully flawed and bound to upset those who most reliably find themselves in the President’s corner.

But Hugh Hewitt, in his lonely twilight struggle to almost single-handedly defend the nomination, did make a persuasive argument for Miers that skirted these points. (His attempts to refute the points were to my mind less successful, but that’s not Hugh’s fault. Red Auerbach always said you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Let’s face it – the Bush administration didn’t give the Miers defenders a whole lot to work with.)

In writing about Judge Bork’s now famous Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “Slouching to Miers,” Hugh quoted Bork saying, “The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq aside, George W. Bush has not governed as a conservative (amnesty for illegal immigrants, reckless spending that will ultimately undo his tax cuts, signing a campaign finance bill even while maintaining its unconstitutionality).”

Since I had argued virtually the same thing as Bork did a week or so earlier, I found nothing wrong with the judge’s assessment. Hugh, however, did. He riposted, “This is the same as arguing that ‘Except for opposing Hitler and later warning of the descent of the Iron Curtain, Churchill did not govern as a conservative.’”

This line brought me back to an essay I had written on Neville Chamberlain a little over a year ago. I observed that no one really remembers whether Chamberlain had magnificent economic policies, whether he treated women and minorities in an enlightened manner, or even whether he had a lot of good photo-ops when natural disasters struck the U.K.

No, all history remembers about Chamberlain is that he booted the big one. He didn’t realize the danger that Hitler posed, or was unwilling to confront that danger in a forceful manner. As a consequence, tens of millions perished.

Or take a more recent and perhaps more relevant example: I would wager most of the readers of this site love Ronald Reagan (as do I). But Reagan also appointed Sandra Day O’Connor who has been the swing vote on virtually every botched Supreme Court decision of the past generation. What’s more, a major reason for appointing O’Connor was to make history by creating the first female Supreme Court justice. While no doubt noble, such a thing was a quota nonetheless.

And yet, when telling stories of the Reagan era, this miscue rarely receives much attention. And that’s as it should be. Reagan was right on the big one – he stood up to communism when his predecessors had failed to do so and many of his contemporaries both foreign and domestic were reluctant to do so. That’s Reagan’s legacy, and the O’Connor fumble rarely gets mentioned because, in the scheme of things, it’s to Reagan as the New York draft riots are to Lincoln. Both men were right on the big ones, and history has been justifiably kind to them.

In his many defenses of Miers, Hugh has on occasion suggested that the President deserves our loyalty, and by “our” I mean (and I presume Hugh means) conservative bloggers and pundits who agree with the president that, among other things, the war with radical Islam is the day’s biggest issue. At the risk of putting words in his modem, Hugh seems to have been concerned that the conservatives’ intramural disagreement might weaken the President and lessen his ability to see things through in the Middle East. With Syria stepping forward the past couple of weeks as another of the region’s regimes that urgently needs toppling, such a concern seems clearly warranted.

I’M NOT SAYING THE MIERS SELECTION WAS A SHREWD MOVE, nor am I ignoring the fact that the Bush administration shot itself in the foot. But right now, as the fight trudges to a sorry conclusion and the nomination awaits its inevitable demise, some introspection is in order. The president has been wounded by this struggle; there can be little doubt that much of the damage has been inflicted by conservative writers like me who have savaged the selection and the man who made it.

Thanks partly to the efforts of the conservative media of which I am and remain a proud part, we’ll probably get a better Supreme Court justice than Harriet Miers. But if the price for that winds up being a longer lifespan for the boy-optometrist dictator in Syria and his murderous cronies, that will turn out to be a high price to have paid indeed.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

Dean Barnett

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


BEFORE DISCUSSING WHAT TO DO in regards to Harriet Miers going forward, let’s discuss what’s happened to date:

1) Early last week, President Bush put forward Harriet Miers to take Sandra Day O’Connor’s place on the bench. Although unknown in serious judicial circles, Miers was very well known in President Bush’s inner-most circle – she was pretty much his lawyer. She had also received the imprimatur of Harry Reid which suggested there wouldn’t be a long and protracted confirmation fight. Reid’s approval, surprisingly enough, did little to please Bush’s conservative supporters.

2) Immediately upon hearing of Miers’ nomination, many conservatives went what is referred to in refined circles as bananas. Charles Krauthammer called the pick “scandalous.” Our own Bill Kristol seemed like he would need a prescription for anti-depressants. Strong ones.

3) But Miers did have her defenders, few that they may be. Senator John Cornyn, seemingly echoing the logic of the late, great Roman Hruska, actually suggested in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that Miers’ lack of credentials as a great legal thinker were a selling point for her appointment. Miers, Cornyn argued, would be a breath of fresh air compared to all those pointy-headed Ivy league educated former appellate judges citing all their boring case law and applying their tedious judicial philosophies.

4) As the week went along, conservatives divided between those who supported the Miers nomination and those who didn’t. The battle lines were clearly drawn; on one side there was my friend Hugh Hewitt, on the other side there was everyone else.

5) On Saturday, Mickey Kaus offered a headline that was still available that might appeal to conservatives who changed their mind and no longer supported the Miers nomination: “Miers Remorse.”

6) Monday morning, John Fund published an important piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “Miers Remorse.” In it, he described his long journey from the Hugh Hewitt camp to the one that has everyone else in it.

Fund did make one very important point. Assuming the president’s word is true and he’s really looking for Scalia in a dress, it’s important to note that presidents, especially Republican presidents, have a dreadful record of identifying justices who will truly be conservative. Thus, even though the president assures us that he looked into Miers’ eyes and got a sense of not only her soul but a sense of her rock-ribbed strict-constructionist judicial philosophy as well, such assurances should be greeted with a dollop of skepticism

That pretty much brings us up to date. So now what?

First, I’m not particularly concerned about the reports of an intra-conservative smash-up. Not to channel Pauline Kael or anything, but I haven’t spoken with or heard from a single conservative who’s happy with this nomination (other than Hugh Hewitt, of course). And mind you, I get a lot of emails.

Hewitt suggests that there might be hard-feelings on the part of evangelicals if things keep going the way they have been. I disagree for two reasons: 1) The Evangelicals that have written me about this nomination have been every bit as irritated as conservatives of other religious faiths; and 2) Evangelicals as a group don’t seem to go for identity group politics. I may be wrong (and if I am, please let me know), but Evangelicals feel Miers will have to make it on her own. Her religious affiliation should be neither a detriment nor a plus. After all, it’s the other guys who dig quotas and what not, right?

The big issue is where does this leave President Bush? I don’t think there’s any use in sugar-coating it – his base feels betrayed. Unlike his adversaries, we give him credit for being intelligent. We think he appointed Miers for a reason. Specifically, we fear that he appointed Miers because he doesn’t want to fight for the judicial issues that mean a lot to us.

Throughout his administration, the president’s domestic policies could be politely described as accomodationist. In an effort to avoid any major conflagrations with the opposition that might disrupt the war on terror, the president has done numerous things that are noxious to his most ardent supporters. A brief list: No Child Left Behind, McCain/Feingold, steel tariffs, a new war on poverty, mushy-mouthed rhetoric where radical Islam is concerned, runaway spending, and unprecedented amounts of pork barrel spending without a single presidential veto or rescission request.

So looking at how this decision reflects on the president, I’ll offer a best case scenario and then a worst case scenario. First, the best case: The president has skillfully identified a stealth nominee who will vote with Thomas and Scalia on the important things. Nonetheless, that nominee is still unqualified by modern standards and ascended to the position because of her status as a presidential crony. If Bill Clinton had attempted to elevate a non-felonious version of Webb Hubbell to the Supreme Court, conservatives would have howled. It’s to our credit that we’re howling now. (Remember, this is the best case scenario.)

The worst case scenario is that Miers is a stealth nominee meant to fool conservatives, not liberals. Perhaps Bush doesn’t want nine black-robed lifetime appointees making any crazy waves by doing stuff like repealing Roe v. Wade. He has a war to fight, and he may be thinking he just doesn’t need that kind of headache.

SO WHAT’S A DESPONDENT CONSERVATIVE TO DO? Well, one thing’s for sure: We’re not about to succumb to Bush Derangement Syndrome and begin new careers as Daily Kos diarists. We still admire this president’s wartime leadership, and most of us consider that to be the biggest issue of the day.

But it’s not the only one. Most conservatives seem entirely unwilling to follow the president’s lead and show total indifference to domestic concerns Our choice boils down to whether to fall in lockstep behind the president and everything he does or to actually have an agenda beyond the war on terror.

This has already been a defining moment for the president, and not a good one. Before this nomination process is complete, it will also be a defining moment for the Conservative Movement of the early 21st century.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

Dean Barnett

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Or the guy that selected her at this particular moment, quite frankly. But it’s time to move beyond that and figure out what this all means for the administration and Conservatism.

First, a few things about President Bush and his administration: His leadership on the war on terror has been impressive. He has recognized the hard work that has had to be done (namely transform the Middle East and at the very least neutralize radical Islam) and has gone about it in a necessarily bull-headed manner. Most politicians and indeed most presidents would have performed some version of “cut and run” long before now in order to placate the Gods of flash opinion polls. The nation is not at this writing grateful to the president for his leadership in this regard; someday it will be.

But it doesn’t take an unusually subtle mind to realize that the domestic Bush and the foreign Bush have been two very different creatures. On domestic affairs, this president has been at best reliably indifferent to conservative ideals, ever-willing to cut a deal with the likes of Ted Kennedy or holier-than-thou McCain/Feingold goo-goo types. One could defend this recurring pattern as a political stratagem meant to assure that the war on terror wouldn’t be interrupted, but with Bush having long since secured a second term another three years of the equivalent of steel tariffs or No Child Left Behind or runaway pork-barrel spending or mealy-mouthed rhetoric are clearly unnecessary.

The Miers nomination thunders home a fundamental point that many of us like yours truly (but certainly not all – see Kristol, William or Last, Jonathan) have been slow to comprehend. When it comes to being a true conservative, George W. Bush is not one of us.

I THINK THE UNRAVELING ALL STARTED IN THE KATRINA AFTERMATH. It wasn’t so much the hideous guitar strumming and post catastrophe lack of leadership that left their marks on us. It was the subsequent policy directives.

First there was the speech in an empty New Orleans that practically vowed a war on poverty. Conservatives know that an individual who declares a war on his own poverty will often enjoy a significant measure of success. Societies, unfortunately, have less luck in such a regard. This is not news. Why it seemed to be news to our president was puzzling.

Of course, we knew the answer. This was a version of steel tariffs writ large and particularly obtuse. It was a politically oriented effort to insulate himself from present and future critics. The president’s policy response to Katrina, namely to throw a quarter trillion dollars at the problem with absolutely no accountability, was as callow a political move in memory. And considering 8 years of Bill Clinton’s leadership are still fresh in mind, that’s saying something.

As if that weren’t dispiriting enough, more depressing news followed. Republican congressional leadership and the president himself showed absolutely no appetite for getting rid of the federal budget’s immense quantity of pork. Tom Delay inveighed that there was no pork in the federal budget – true conservatives screamed into their collective pillow and took a measure of shaedenfreude when he was indicted a short while later. (True, the indictments appear to be a load of hooey perpetrated by an unhinged and particularly venal prosecutor, but no one ever said shaedenfreude was a wise or discerning emotional response.)

And other stuff began happening as a Category 4 storm of shattered illusions gathered. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that President Bush has used fewer budgetary rescission requests (whereby the president suggests to congress certain egregiously porcine elements of the budget that should be cut) far less often than any of his predecessors. Actually, it’s worse than that – during his time in office, the President has requested a grand total of $0 be cut out of the budget. That’s right – zero, zilch, nada.

For purposes of comparison, Bill Clinton used his rescission request powers to target $6,628,000,000 of pork. This is approximately $6,628,000,000 more than President Bush has requested. At his current rate, at the end of his term, Bush will fall $6,628,000,000 behind Bill Clinton’s standard who, by the way, requested about 85% less budget trimming than Ronald Reagan did.

More disturbing still, the pork was put in the budget by a Republican congress. And perhaps worst of all, even Nancy Pelosi has been able to position herself to the responsible right of the power-drunk spendthrifts currently running congress. While Delay was saying that the budget was a lean mean machine that could not be trimmed without endangering the Republic and Bush was offering (and still offers) his silent assent to that notion, Pelosi was identifying $70 million of the latest highway bill atrocity that was targeted for her district that she would cut out of the bill to “help the victims of Katrina.”

BUT BACK TO MIERS. Let’s pronounce a couple of Conservative principles that I think most people who call themselves modern Conservatives would agree with. First, when possible, a meritocracy is desirable. Second, activist judges who legislate from the bench are a scourge upon the land.

Regarding the issue of whether Miers is the choice of a man or a party who believes in a meritocracy, let me say this: Miers is a solid and accomplished professional who should not be gratuitously disparaged. But there is absolutely nothing to suggest that she is the one American most deserving of filling a slot on the Supreme Court. Nothing.

Let’s give Miers the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Let’s say that she is a stealth Scalia. Better still, let’s say that twenty years from now her body of jurisprudence turns out to compare favorably with that of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Even so, could anyone possibly argue that she is the American who as of this writing has earned a spot on the Supreme Court? A believer in a meritocracy would want the person who deserved the post to get it. Harriet Miers ain’t that person. A logical contrary position is simply impossible. (A personal note to those who claim I sometimes succumb to the vapors of East Coast elitism: Wasn’t it cool how I handled that issue without a single derogatory reference to SMU or suggesting that Eric Dickerson run the Department of Transportation since he surely couldn’t do any worse than Norm Minetta?)

Second, we have to consider whether Miers will be the kind of judge that we like, one who votes like Scalia or at least like Rehnquist. On that issue, she’s a blank slate and we’re left with this – we have to trust the president. The problem with that is this is the president who signed McCain/Feingold, turned FEMA over to Brownie, and just declared a war on poverty that was redolent of LBJ-style rhetoric.

Trust is earned, and sometimes it’s squandered. If you’re a conservative and sanguine about just trusting the president on a critical domestic issue, you’re a more forgiving man than I.

Or maybe you’re just an even bigger sap.

SO HERE’S THE POSITIVE AS I SEE IT. A few years ago, a friend of mine went for his yearly physical and his doctor saw something that alarmed him. He ordered some tests, and the tests revealed cancer. Obviously my friend didn’t think of his day of diagnosis as a particularly red-letter day; indeed, he considered it one of the worst days of his life.

But now that he’s healthy, a different perspective has emerged. The day of diagnosis wasn’t a dark day. The dark day was when he developed the cancer that later threatened his life. The day of diagnosis was in fact a great day – it gave him an awareness of the problem and a fighting chance to lick it.

That’s something like what the Miers selection can mean for conservatives. On domestic issues, this president and particularly this congress have long been problematic. Now we have our day of diagnosis – between the Katrina aftermath and the Miers selection, denial is no longer a possibility.

These are politicians who cannot be trusted with the conservative agenda. It’s that simple. The treatment for the diagnosis may be rough. I hate to say it, but the liberal blogs may actually be right – 2006 might well be a bloodbath for a Republican party that find itself as rudderless as its perennially pathetic opponents.

But the time has come to admit the truth. We support this president on the war on terror. We admire his courageous stances related to pursuing victory in that struggle.

But this president and the Republican mandarins running congress have shortcomings that can no longer be denied. So let’s at least assess the issue honestly, and figure out how a conservative agenda can be pursued with these detriments on our side.

The truth is out there, friends. Denying the obvious won’t help.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

Dean Barnett