ONE OF THE MANY lessons conservatives seem to be learning from the Harriet E. Miers imbroglio is that it’s no fun to be on the receiving end of a vicious smear from the Bush administration.
Last week, Ed Gillespie -- the former Republican National Committee chairman designated by Bush to flack for his nominee -- told a group of conservative activists that the criticism of Miers had a “whiff of sexism.” And then, to show it’s no fluke, Laura Bush repeated the sexism charge this week.
Conservatives certainly have a right to be outraged. After all, they oppose Miers on the basis of her lack of qualifications and suspect ideology, not her sex. But there is something comical about their shock. After all, Bush administration officials and their allies in Congress have been using this same technique on the Democrats for years -- and the conservatives in the party never saw fit to object.
Virtually every time the Democrats objected to one of Bush’s judicial nominees, the president’s allies accused them of discrimination. Take, for instance, Janice Rogers Brown, the California Supreme Court justice who Bush nominated for a federal appeals court job. She speaks about government in the raving tones of a militia member and believes that the sort of government role in the economy most Americans have taken for granted since the New Deal is not just wrong but unconstitutional.
Now, you would think that the Democratic opposition to Rogers as a federal judge is probably related to her desire to use the courts to impose her Dickensian vision upon an unwilling public. Instead, Republicans have insisted the Democrats must be motivated by bigotry. Sometimes this argument has been subtle. (“I would hope that today the filibuster would not be used to deny an up-or-down vote on Janice Rogers Brown, because every parent deserves to dream for every child that they’ll have a chance,” argued one GOP senator.) Other times it has been more crude. (“Why are they afraid to put a black woman on the court?” asked one conservative black minister at an event with Senate Republican leader Bill Frist.)
Here’s another example. Republicans widely insinuated that Democratic opposition to the nomination of Miguel Estrada as a federal appellate judge was racist. Trent Lott -- Trent Lott!, the man who was forced to step down as majority leader because he praised the segregationist candidacy of Strom Thurmond! -- asserted, “They don’t want Miguel Estrada because he’s Hispanic.”
When Democrats opposed Priscilla Owen, another very conservative nominee, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft blustered, “Senate Democrats have indicated an unfortunate trend toward unfairness against qualified women nominated by this administration.” When Democrats opposed the nomination of extremely conservative Alabama Atty. Gen. William Pryor, Republicans insisted it was because Pryor is Catholic. (Democrats said they didn’t even know Pryor is Catholic until a Republican brought it up in hearings.) The Committee for Justice, a group linked to the White House, ran TV advertisements portraying a locked courthouse with the sign, “Catholics need not apply.”
And even if a Bush nominee is not black, Latino, female or Catholic, that doesn’t get Democrats off the hook. “It’s not just Catholics,” a Committee for Justice spokesman put it. “I think there’s an element of the far left of the Democratic Party that sees as its project scrubbing the public square of religion, and in some cases not only religion but of religious people.” So any opposition to any Bush nominee -- except, I suppose, white male atheists -- will be swiftly smeared as the work of bigots.
The Republican Party has adopted the hair-trigger racial sensitivity of a campus diversity activist, except that its motivation is cynicism rather than genuine left-wing ideological fanaticism.
It’s funny that conservatives never objected to these smears when they were being deployed against the left, and even participated on occasion. In fact, they sometimes piled on themselves. (“Senate Democrats are blocking [Owen’s] nomination to a federal appeals court, not just because she is supposedly too conservative, but because she is too female,” wrote National Review Editor Rich Lowry last spring.) For some reason, they must have thought they could go after a Bush nominee and be spared its standard operating procedure for squashing judicial dissent. It’s not the first time they misjudged this administration.