Fasten Your Beltway

I think I know what White House aides are thinking.

They’re thinking: This is the part of my memoir where we faced the daily pounding of our allies. They’re thinking: This is the “Churchill Alone” chapter. They’re thinking: He was like a panther in the jungle night. For five years he sat, watchful, still as marble, his eyes poised upon his prey. And then he sprang in a sudden burst of sleek-muscled focus, and when it was over his face was unchanged but for the scarlet ring of blood around his mouth. But enough about George Will. They’re thinking: That’s good, save it for later.

They’re thinking: This will pass.

They’re right. It will.

But they’re going to have to make that happen.

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Can this marriage be saved? George W. Bush feels dissed and unappreciated: How could you not back me? Conservatives feel dissed and unappreciated: How could you attack me? Both sides are toe to toe. One senses that the critics will gain, as they’ve been gaining, and that the White House is on the losing side. If the administration had a compelling rationale for Harriet Miers’s nomination, they would have made it. Simply going at their critics was not only destructive, it signaled an emptiness in their arsenal. If they had a case they’d have made it. “You’re a sexist snob” isn’t a case; it’s an insult, one that manages in this case to be both startling and boring.

Is there a way out for the White House? Yes. Change plans at LaGuardia. Remember the wisdom of New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who said, “I don’t make a lot of mistakes but when I do it’s a beaut!”? The Miers pick was a mistake. The best way to change the story is to change the story. Here’s one way.

The full Tim McCarthy. He was the Secret Service agent who stood like Stonewall and took the bullet for Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton. Harriet Miers can withdraw her name, take the hit, and let the president’s protectors throw him in the car. Her toughness and professionalism would appear wholly admirable. She’d not just survive; she’d flourish, going from much-spoofed office wife to world-famous lawyer and world-class friend. Added side benefit: Her nobility makes her attackers look bad. She’s better than they, more loyal and serious. An excellent moment of sacrifice and revenge.

The president would get to announce a better nominee—I’d recommend continuing the air of stoic pain—and much of the conservative establishment would feel constrained to go along. Some would feel the need to prove their eagerness to be supportive, and how thwarted their natural impulse to loyalty was by the choice of the unfortunate Harriet. They have a base too, which means they pay a price for marching out of lockstep. Mr. Bush will have an open field. He could even shove Alberto Gonzales down their throats! Or, more wisely and constructively, more helpfully and maturely, he could choose one of the outstanding jurists thoughtful conservatives have long touted: Edith Jones, Edith Clement, Janice Rogers Brown. (Before the Miers pick a man could have been considered, but to replace Ms. Miers now it will have to be a woman. Sometimes you just can’t add more layers to the story.)

Connected to this is the the modified Dan Quayle. When George H.W. Bush chose Mr. Quayle to be his vice presidential candidate, the 41-year-old junior senator from Indiana should have said, “Thanks, but I’m not ready. Someday I will be, but I have more work to do in Congress and frankly more growing to do as a human being before I indulge any national ambitions.” This would have been great because it was true. When his staff leaked what he’d said, a shocked Washington would have concurred, conceding his wisdom and marking him for better things. He’d probably have run for president in 2000. He could be president now.

The best way to do the modified Quayle comes from Mickey Kaus: “How about appointing Miers to a federal appeals court? She’s qualified. Bush could say that while he knows Miers he understands others’ doubts—and he knows she will prove over a couple of years what a first-rate judge she is. Then he hopes to be able to promote her. Semi-humilating, but less humiliating than the alternatives. And not a bad job to get. . . . Miers could puncture the tension with one smiling crack about being sent to the minors. The collective sigh of national relief would drown out the rest of her comments.” That’s thinking.

If Ms. Miers did what Mr. Quayle didn’t do—heck, she could wind up on the Supreme Court.

How can the White House climb down after 10 days of insisting Ms. Miers is the one? Mmmmm, sometimes you don’t climb down. Sometime you just let gravity do what it’s doing. You drop like an apple. Three days of silence and then the trip to LaGuardia.

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The White House, after the Miers withdrawal/removal/disappearance, would be well advised to call in leaders of the fractious base—with heavy initial emphasis on the Washington conservative establishment—and have some long talks about the future. It’s time for the administration to reach out to wise men and women, time for Roosevelt Room gatherings of the conservative clans. Much old affection remains, and respect lingers, but a lot of damage has been done. The president has three years yet to serve. That, I think, is the subtext of recent battles: Conservatives want to modify and, frankly, correct certain administration policies now, while there’s time. The White House can think of this—and should think of it—as an unanticipated gift. A good fight can clear the air; a great battle can result in resolution and recommitment. No one wants George W. Bush turned into Jimmy Carter, or nobody should. The world is a dangerous place, and someone has to lead America.

An essential White House mistake—really a key and historic one—was in turning on its critics with such idiotic ferocity. “My way or the highway” is getting old. “Please listen to us and try to see it our way or we’ll have to kill you,” is getting old. Sending Laura Bush out to make her first mistake as first lady, agreeing with Matt Lauer that sexism is probably part of the reason for opposition to Ms. Miers, was embarrassingly inept and only served to dim some of the power of this extraordinary resource.

As for Ed Gillespie and his famous charge of sexism and elitism, I don’t think serious conservatives believe Ed is up nights pondering whiffs and emanations of class tension and gender bias in modern America. It was the ignorant verbal lurch of a K Street behemoth who has perhaps forgotten that conservatives are not merely a bloc, a part of the base, a group that must be handled, but individuals who are and have been in it for serious reasons, for the long haul, and often at considerable sacrifice. They don’t deserve to be patronized by people they’ve long strained to defend.

And next time perhaps the White House, in announcing and presenting the arguments for a new nominee to the high court, will remember a certain tradition with regard to how we do it in America. We don’t say, “We’ve nominated Joe because he’s a Catholic!” A better and more traditional approach is, “Nominee Joe is a longtime practitioner of the law with considerable experience, impressive credentials, and a lively and penetrating intellect. Any questions? Yes, he is a member of the Catholic church. Any other questions?”

That’s sort of how we do it. We put the horse and then the cart. The arguments for the person and then the facts attendant to the person. You don’t say, “Vote for this gal because she’s an Evangelical!” That shows a carelessness, an inability to think it through, to strategize, to respectfully approach serious facts—failings that, if they weren’t typical of the White House the past few months, might be called downright sexist.