The White House plans for a do-over.

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Oct. 17 2005 10:44 AM

Miers 2.0

The White House plans for a do-over.

Get ready for Harriet Miers, the brand. Click on image to enlarge.
Get ready for Harriet Miers, the brand

This week, we get a whole new Harriet. President Bush and his team, on their heels for the last two weeks, are mobilizing for a big repackaging of the nominee. One report suggests an administration team of 20 has been assembled for the effort. Forget for a moment the evangelical workaholic who wrote those fawning notes and instead think about Harriet the keen, lean legal mind. "We're going to talk about not the church she goes to," says one official involved in the effort, "but her record and qualifications."

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.

The White House now faces the same problem Democrats did with John Roberts. "Whoever defines the nominee in the first 48 hours wins," said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan after it became clear that the initial applause for Roberts' nomination was hardening into a lock on confirmation. Miers has already been defined, and the administration will have to overcome what has solidified into conventional wisdom in order to redefine her more positively. You could see the frustration on Friday as spokesman Scott McClellan exchanged elbows  with reporters he accused of focusing on side issues rather than Miers' record.

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But wasn't the original pitch about her heart and her church necessary because there weren't a lot of specifics to throw at critics? Not true, say White House aides who admit to being clumsy in the hopes of resisting a more dangerous truth: that they went looking for qualifications but couldn't find many. This time, they'll emphasize qualifications, even at the risk of exaggerating some paltry-sounding ones. We'll be introduced to supporters from Texas, including former members of the Texas Supreme Court (other than Nathan Hecht) and others who have known and worked with Miers on the Dallas City Council and the lottery commission. White House officials would prefer to spend next week trumpeting the successful and relatively violence-free referendum on the Iraqi Constitution, but they have little choice if they're going to salvage their nomination

The president's most vocal critics are not going to be swayed, of course, but the gambit is not designed for them. Republican senators just need some ammunition to justify their yea votes. The White House has to help senators who have been watching the nominee flop around the deck come up with something positive to say to their own dubious conservative constituents.

Cartoon by Lalo Alcaraz.
More cartoons on Harriet Miers by today's top cartoonists here.

Miers' allies will continue to portray her opponents as snobs. The new witnesses coming forward know her, Bush aides will argue, unlike the armchair quarterbacks who manufacture opinion on radio talk shows and in conservative magazines. We might even start hearing a little more militancy, too. "That's the president's pick: a woman who is smart and who could get confirmed," said a top administration aide, "if you want to complain about that, then fine. That's who he is." It's unclear whether he is also someone who might help Miers by offering an actual illustration of her alleged competency. Bush has known her for 10 years. Can't he give those who would like to support Miers something a little more specific on which to hang their votes?

The White House has some quiet allies in this fight, but they're not the sort it wants. A number of Democrats I've talked to say that their own criticism of Miers has been muted, not just because they don't want to interrupt a budding GOP civil war, but because they'd prefer a potentially moderate woman with soft qualifications to another committed, persuasive conservative. "Reid is mindful that if she goes down to defeat, something far uglier for us might come down the pike," said a senior Senate Democratic staffer of the Senate minority leader.

The quieter liberals are, of course, the more suspicious conservatives become. So, in the stage management planned for the next weeks, the White House might want to address this issue. In addition to tutoring the public on what Harriet knows, they might want to do something to make Ted Kennedy really mad.

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