When Harriet Miers withdrew her nomination, religion was once again at the heart of the drama. "Thank God," said one senior Republican Hill staffer in an e-mail. "Amen," a top Bush adviser wrote. Another top GOP staffer reported receiving a string of BlackBerry messages forwarding news alerts followed simply by short prayers of thanksgiving.
For weeks it felt like the Washington system that sometimes operates independently of the most powerful man in the world was waiting for a reason to end the Miers nomination drama. Last week, the narrative had gotten so bad that friends of the White House were predicting (correctly, it turns out) that Miers was doomed and that only the president had yet to realize it.
The White House had stood firm. Forget the pundits, the Senate vote count is all we care about, insiders said. "The people yelling the loudest don't have a vote in the room," a top White House official told me at the time. But as the pundits squawked, Republican senators communicated their doubts in public with increasing fervor. Yesterday, the White House legislative shop dialed around to senators asking where they stood on the nomination. The count didn't go well. "Did we have the votes yesterday? Yes," said a senior administration official. "Did we know where it was going? Yes."
The fight over documents related to Miers' work in the White House was the last straw. According to administration officials, Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kans., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., were adamant that they would need documents—something, anything—to make up for her thin record and middling performance since her nomination. Miers' questionnaire had been paltry. Her visits with senators had not gone well. At his Cabinet meeting Monday, Bush told his staff the documents represented a "red line" that he would not cross, setting the stage for the showdown.
Of course the White House should have known this fight was coming. This president was never going to let anyone peek into his private conversations with Miers. But Bush and his advisers never thought they'd have to. They assumed that Bush's backing Miers' résumé (including her religious credentials) and her gender would allow the president to push her though.
In the end, the documents issue provided the face-saving cover that columnist Charles Krauthammer suggested they would. Each side played to type: Sen. Brownback took to the cameras to lament the impasse over the documents. The White House framed Miers' withdrawal as a principled stand to protect a prerogative of the office. After a long intraparty fight, everyone embraced the illusion as the first act of reconciliation.
This morning, officials described Bush as angry and disappointed. He's had to watch his friend get chewed up by the system and has been given another illustration of his diminished power. He no longer has the political capital of which he has so often boasted.
Is there any good news in this for the White House? Inside the West Wing, the fever might break: Aides have suffered day after day as Miers' chances diminished; now they can fight for a new, presumably more defensible, pick. Also, a replacement nomination—which officials say may be announced as soon as tomorrow—gives Bush an opportunity to change the story line of conflict inside the GOP. A new choice the right applauds may bring the fractured party back into line. "If he chooses a solid conservative, this is the opportunity he needs to shore up the base on the one issue that unites all," says a senior Republican strategist. "It won't just shore them up—they will be excited because they will think, rightly, they got it done."
Bush's next nominee is almost certain to kick off a fight with Democrats, which will further animate the GOP base. In their wildest dreams, Bush advisers hope that a big messy Supreme Court fight not only invigorates the right again but distracts the country from the indictments everyone supposes are coming tomorrow from Patrick Fitzgerald. Think of it as encouraging conflict to downplay disaster.