November 2, 2005

Rush to judgment

It didn’t take long, after the door hit Harriet Miers in the butt, for President Bush to offer another nominee to the Supreme Court. Only four days to be exact, but when you have unshakable confidence in the infallibility of your own judgment, despite all evidence to the contrary, there is little need for reflection.

Indeed, the haste with which Bush named Samuel Alito to the O’Connor seat led some cynics to speculate that Miers had been merely a setup woman for a certified fire-balling conservative nominee. Bush was obviously in trouble with conservatives, not just over Miers, but over a succession of missteps and miscalculations that jeopardized the possibility of a permanent conservative Republican government. In other words, the political capital Bush boasted about following his reelection, plus the metaphorical dime, could barely buy a cup of Starbucks.

Furthermore, there was Friday’s indictment of White House aide Scooter Libby, which raised more questions about the ethics of a White House that continues, again despite considerable evidence to the contrary, to hold itself out as a paragon of virtue.

So over the weekend the American political punditocracy was aflutter with the guessing game of whether Bush would appoint a conciliatory “moderate” jurist to avoid a bloody fight, or whether he needed to precipitate such a brawl as a gesture to the religious right that was alienated by the Miers episode. On Monday he chose the latter course, and while it was a move cleverly designed to appease his conservative base, it was not the base most people were talking about.

If you look closely at the Bush/Cheney/Rove White House, two patterns emerge. First, whenever “W” has appeared to be losing public support, he’s created a crisis to scare voters back into his fold and divert attention from his latest embarrassing mistake. (As I write, Bush is giving a speech to scare us about an Asian flu pandemic and to appear to be saving us from a threat that may or may not exist. Is a color-coded flu alert in our future?) Second, and most relevant to this week’s tactics, he precipitated a philosophical debate that would energize and coalesce his right-wing media wingmen. In other words, Karl Rove is alive, well and in charge at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Virtually all of the public relations success of the Bush administration — as superficial as that has been — is attributable to the chorus of cheerleading he has received from conservative media figures. If it weren’t for Joe Scarborough, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, William Kristol, Ann Coulter, Pat and Bay Buchanan, Mary Matalin, George Will, Charles Krauthammer and others in the mainstream media — and Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and others in the religious media — Bush’s agenda would have created about as much momentum as the Communist Manifesto, and John Kerry would be president.

Consider the last few months. Bush lost his media back-up for Iraq, unprecedented budget deficits, Katrina and Social Security. The Miers nomination was the straw that threatened to break the elephant’s back, because the holy grail of the right wing is the Supreme Court, and Miers was not sufficiently predictable on the abortion issue.

Virtually none of the right-wing media commentators has been carrying the president’s water. In fact, many of his traditionally loyal supporters had turned downright hostile toward the man in whom they had invested so much of their punditry capital. President Lyndon Johnson famously said that when he had lost Walter Cronkite on Vietnam, he had lost the country. If you’re George Bush and you lose people like George Will and Bill Kristol, you’ve lost your presidency.

So there never really was a chance that Bush would offer a moderate nominee for the Supreme Court, if indeed such a person exists. In today’s environment, any jurist considered moderate by Democrats (to wit: Harriet Miers) would be deemed satanically liberal by the radical right, and vice versa. Simply stated, Bush needed to reclaim his conservative media chorus to save what is left of his administration.

All this considered, the Democrats will be playing right into Bush’s hands if they haul out the heavy artillery against Samuel Alito. They should lie low, do their opposition research on Alito, delay the confirmation hearings into next year and continue to beat the drums about the things that got Bush into trouble in the first place.

They should not stop asking what Bush and Cheney knew about the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity and the fabrication of the case for war in Iraq. They should demand that Bush fire Rove. They should pound the White House on issues of competence, judgment and ethics.

And then, they should work like hell to win back the White House in 2008, so the Supreme Court is not in the hands of those who pray for an American theocracy.

Contact the writer at jyarmuth@aol.com