Gods vs. Geeks

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Oct. 5 2005 7:49 PM

Gods vs. Geeks

GOP evangelicals fight intellectuals over Harriet Miers.

The debate within the Republican Party over Harriet Miers has quickly devolved into a simple question: Is the nominee qualified because of her religious faith, or unqualified by her lack of intellectual heft? On the one side, James Dobson, Miers' fellow parishioners at Valley View Christian Church, and President Bush speak for her heart. On the other, George Will and William Kristol and others who swooned for John Roberts decry her unimpressive legal mind.

In this battle, the White House has clearly sided with the churchgoing masses against the Republican Party's own whiny Beltway intellectuals. The Bushies have always mistrusted their own bow-tied secularists, but the rift has never before been so public. "This is classic elitism," says a senior administration official of the GOP opposition to the Miers nomination. "We often blame the left for it, but we have it in our own ranks. Just because she wasn't on a shortlist of conservatives who prepared their whole life for this moment doesn't make her any less conservative … and just because she hasn't penned op-eds for the Wall Street Journal doesn't mean she hasn't formed a judicial philosophy."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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Left-wing bloggers may see the Bush administration and its allies as a uniform mass, but like all successful political teams, it's actually a coalition. At the heart of the coalition is an uncomfortable mix between, on the one hand, right-wing intellectuals, including the neoconservatives whose backing for the Iraq invasion has been so important, and, on the other, the evangelicals who turned out in such numbers to vote for a man who boasted that he was one of them. The Bible-thumbing armies may carry the elections, but they sometimes make the elites in the Republican Party as uncomfortable as they make Maureen Dowd and Michael Moore. In return, the mega-church attendees are mistrustful of the party's often secular, often not-Christian pundits and wizards.

For the Ivy League conservatives who edit magazines and read the New York Times, Miers' lack of judicial prowess makes her incapable of fending off the inevitable leftward pull  of all of that marble. Bush evangelicals, on the other hand, believe that her faith will be a more powerful guard against the forces of secularism than any school-book learning. "If she is really centered on Christ, then that's even more important than not caring what Ivy League law schools think about her," says Marvin Olasky, editor of the Christian conservative World magazine. "It means she has a moral compass not tuned to Washington glory." One group wants a member of the judicial monastery, the other wants a woman who could live in one. Bush pledged to appoint a Scalia, say those that weigh her intellectual heft, and she's no Scalia. But those who find Scalia's belief in God more important than his belief in original intent don't see the difference.

We've seen a lot of Bush's neocon side during the war years, as he appropriated arguments from Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Kristol for democratizing the Middle East to provide ballast for his Iraq invasion. But the Miers pick is more reminiscent of the candidate who in 1999 was asked who his favorite philosopher was. "Christ," Bush famously replied, "because he changed my heart. ...When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the Savior, it changes your heart and changes your life."

The elites howled at the time. The evangelicals smiled. They understood. The president was trying to tap into that understanding yesterday in the Rose Garden, when he said he knows Miers' heart. The case Bush is making is that in fact, she is the anti-Souter. Before the confirmation hunt, George H.W. Bush wouldn't have known Souter had he been riding on the president's shoulders. But Bush knows Miers.

It's usually time to duck with Bush when he starts playing clairvoyant cardiologist. He said he knew Putin's heart, too, before Putin turned out to be more like Stalin than Jefferson. But he knows Miers not just because they've worked together for 10 years, but because she's walked the same walk. Bush became a committed evangelical Christian at around age 40. She was 34. In that faith, knowing her heart is code for: She's one of us. James Dobson didn't announce his support for Miers so quickly because he heard she was a whiz in the corporate boardroom.

Beyond the religious ties, there's nothing that will make Bush fight harder for his nominee than an attack by the intellectuals—even if they are from his own party. Those who put others down as second-rate minds with weak credentials get relegated to that class of snobs he first learned to hate at Yale, when he walked through their Vietnam protests in his leather bomber jacket. Those who lack skill in what Will called "constitutional reasoning" are already pressing the president's anti-intellectual buttons. Bush loves the idea, say aides, that Miers strikes a blow for real-world simplicity.

Wednesday morning, administration envoys Ed Gillespie, the former head of the RNC, and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society  appeared before anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist's weekly off-the-record gathering of conservative leaders to discuss the Miers nomination. According to my sources, there was yelling. Sparks flew. Miers was not qualified; her pick was a capitulation to the left; Bush is not a true conservative. The White House listens to these outraged voices but considers them more a nuisance than genuine problem. Norquist would not talk about the meeting but did describe the sweaty feeling among disenchanted conservatives. "This is a hard time for the right," he says. "There's the frustration that comes from impotence, because there's nothing they can do. She's going to get confirmed. And they don't know what she'll do when she is. If you're the president, all you can say is 'trust me,' but 'trust me' me is borderline insulting."

The administration says that those with the loudest voices don't have a vote in the Senate, and they're right. That the conservative Eagle Forum is planning to shift and openly oppose Miers isn't a fatal blow, but it may make it easier for conservative lawmakers to defect. Today Sen. Lott crossed his arms and acted doubtful. Still, Miers is likely to be confirmed. But by taking one side so clearly in the internal debate in his party, Bush is making a bet that he can heal the fissure after a short-term win, and that the current fracas among Republicans will dissolve back into one between Republicans versus Democrats.

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