When John Roberts appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, senators treated him like a legal god, Solomon crossed with John Marshall, with a touch of Hammurabi. They trembled just to be in the room with him. Even the Democrats who voted against him moaned, "We are not worthy."
This won't be the problem, to put it mildly, with Harriet Miers. As we struggle to learn what, if anything, she believes, we're all going to become experts in the unfamiliar positions she held—from staff secretary in the White House to lottery commissioner in Texas. Was she the one spinning the wheel on the Pick Five? Whatever we learn, the initial judgment will stick: fine lawyer, no legal giant.
On the surface, this is good news for the senators on the committee. It's no fun to feel intimidated. Now they can go back to demonstrating how smart they are without the fear of being shown up by a nominee who knows better. But showboating senators who might want to derail the president's nominee should tread very carefully. The caricature of Miers that is emerging is so pathetic, her inadequacies so exaggerated, her inarticulateness so certain, that by the time she speaks in the committee room, she's almost certain to seem appealing.
Managing expectations has become a key strategy of this White House. The president has benefited for most of his career from being seen as the middling boy from Midland, and he got elected in 2000 by seeming more competent than his bumbling image. But we've become accustomed to his favorite act. So now it's Miers' turn to try it. Miers is an unknown, and the initial grim assessments are lowering the bar into the basement. Democrats have called her a crony and a cipher. "She was Bush's fixer," said one Democratic strategist, pointing to her role in his 1998 gubernatorial re-election campaign checking reports that Bush shirked his National Guard duty. Conservatives have been even more ruthless. Key elite pundits like William Kristol and Pat Buchanan were dejected that Bush caved to the forces of moderation, wasting his crucial pick when he could have cemented the court's conservative course for the next 20 to 30 years. Even Rush was grumpy until the vice president settled him down. The biggest fear is that she is a Souter in St. John knits: a justice insufficiently conservative who will only become more liberal once she gets on the bench.
Even the moderate Republicans were making jokes. "Crony or wing nut? Crony or wing nut?" asked one strategist. "Okay, this time we'll go with the crony."
When the president's nominee finally appears before the cameras, all she has to do is offer cogent answers and she'll come off like a worthy O'Connor successor. Miers has a few things going for her that suggest this might happen. Her slightly nervous presentation today in the Oval Office suggests that she's not too comfortable in the spotlight. Such lack of polish will serve her well when she has to spend hours at the witness table. She may actually be humble as opposed to just telling us she's humble, as Roberts did with each click of the minute hand.
She's also very diligent and methodical. She may be a personal friend of the president's, but that doesn't mean she loafed around until she was 40 and then got cracking. She has had a careful upward career. Her White House colleagues describe her as thorough, forceful, and straightforward. It was her job to prepare Roberts for his testimony, so she's had practice at not answering questions.
Also, she's a woman. Arlen Specter is still living down his pushy questioning of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Women have come a long way, but Americans still cringe when they see a woman get browbeaten by a man in pinstripes. It will be a particularly thorny matter for Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who is noodling a run for the White House.
On the right, if Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kans., is really thinking about running for president, he might be tempted to put on a show for the social conservatives who are nervous about Miers. But it is more likely that he won't want to risk alienating women voters. The White House clearly understands the political power of picking a woman: They scheduled the president's announcement for smack in the middle of Good Morning America and Today—and their female-skewed demographics.
Those who know Bush well say that the biggest reason Miers will be a better pick than the pundits realize is that this president is obsessed with his father's mistakes. The Souter appointment was worse for George H.W. Bush than breaking his no-new-taxes pledge. The son would never duplicate that mistake. Already there are signs that the social conservatives may be more enthusiastic than the reaction of professional inside-the-Beltway conservatives would lead you to expect. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, has already moved to support Miers, a faster nod than he gave to Roberts. The evangelical community murmurs that Dobson based his endorsement on those who have known Miers for 25 years at the Valley View Christian Church in Dallas. Her fellow parishioners bore witness to her evangelical faith. Marvin Olasky, a key influence in shaping Bush's faith-based initiatives, reported a similar review of her personal devotion on his blog. The emerging message seems to be: She's one of us and she's with us on abortion. Now if she can just avoid saying that to the Senate and speak in complete sentences, she will be on the court in no time.