Was Harriet Miers Borked?

Ever since Robert Bork, a right-wing darling nominated by Ronald Reagan to the Supreme Court, was defeated by a passionate lobbying campaign waged by liberal groups, conservatives have turned his name into a verb with a derogatory meaning, as in, Those Democrats are Borking yet another judicial nominee to appease the special-interest groups on the left.

But Miers, who withdrew from consideration as a Supreme Court justice just days after George W. Bush said her nomination would go forward, must feel a little Borked herself. And her Borkers were fellow Republicans and conservatives, the same folks who once decried Borking as a danger to the Republic.

Miers’ detractors on the right will say that they merely waged a crusade based on principles. They did not believe she was qualified for the job, and even though she was nominated for the position by a president they support and appeared likely to vote in a conservative manner, they took the difficult road of opposing her and Bush, citing an allegiance to ideals that transcend partisan loyalty.

True. And foes of Bork were also motivated by devotion to principles and ideals. But the Miers critics deployed tactics that conservatives had previously associated with Borking They didn’t just state their opposition to Miers and engage in polite discourse; they mounted a political campaign. The anti-Miers outfit started by former Bush speechwriter David Frum, a neocon, aired negative ads targeting Miers on the Fox News Channel. Anti-Miers partisans seemed to have circulated negative information about her within the media. Stories have appeared about a payment her family–not Miers herself–received for a piece of land needed for a highway ramp that was 18 times the assessed value of the property. Vapid columns she had written years ago showed up in the hands of columnist David Brooks, who pummeled her. Conservatives have employed excessive rhetoric to denounce her. Right-wing columnist Rod Dreher wrote,

American conservatism is in a crisis at the moment because the bizarre Harriet Miers nomination imposes a surreality check on the right, forcing us to consider just how much nonsense we’ve had gone along with for the sake of party discipline.

Wendy Wright, executive vice president of Concerned Women of America, exclaimed,

Every time she quotes or cites a women she admires, they’re to the left of Betty Friedan.

Wright was referring to speeches in which Miers once–during the confirmation process of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg–praised Ginsburg’s courage and once suggested that then-Governor Ann Richards of Texas might someday be elected vice president or president. Days ago, one leader of the Federalist Society, the central command for conservative legal activists, declared that if Miers wanted to prove she was a real conservative, she would withdraw.

When Bork, a leader of the get-Harriet gang, was asked last week by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer whether Miers deserved the benefit of the doubt, at least until her confirmation hearings, he huffed, “What doubt?”

Moreover, conservatives often blast Democrats for voting against judicial nominees because they are afraid to buck liberal activist groups. They seem to think there is something wrong in responding to constituencies. But anti-Miers right-wingers were pressuring Republicans to vote against Miers and threatening that if a Republican senator did not do as they liked there would be a price to pay. In an October 23 column, George Will opined,

As for Republicans, any who vote for Miers will thereafter be ineligible to argue that it is important to elect Republicans because they are conscientious conservers of the judicial branch’s invaluable dignity. Finally, any Republican senator who supinely acquiesces in President Bush’s reckless abuse of presidential discretion–or who does not recognize the Miers nomination as such–can never be considered presidential material.

Take that, Senator George Allen. Here was Will warning Republican senators that they had better do what he, Kristol, Krauthammer, Frum and others think best…or else.

I don’t believe Will was wrong to issue such a threat. The anti-Miers cons were not wrong to denounce her nomination and to campaign against it. They were not wrong to express themselves fully and passionately. They were not wrong to go looking for negative information on her They were not wrong to spread such material (as long as it was accurate). If they wanted to depict this nomination as a “crisis”–for conservatism, the country or both–that was their prerogative. They were not wrong to oppose her with much force and vigor (and they do deserve a measure of respect for placing principle over politics). But neither were the liberals wrong to oppose Bork in a fiery manner.

There are certainly differences between the Bork and Miers cases. (He was a legal scholar; she was not.) But those who care about the court are entitled to fight for what they believe, and that includes ardently opposing a nominee whom they feel would not serve the nation well. Perhaps it is time to retire Bork the verb.