Whither Conservatism

Bush's judicial nomination betrays his ideological infidelity

If a Supreme Court nomination is the defining moment of a presidency, the nomination of Harriet Miers, White House legal counsel and previously Bush’s personal lawyer, confirms that the Bush administration has abandoned any attempt at vigorously or seriously advocating a coherent conservative philosophy.

By consistently avoiding any semblance of a clash of ideas, the Bush administration has evacuated the content from their claims to conservatism, leaving only an empty husk of special interests, a coalition of hungry lobbyists looking for corporate handouts and Senators at the trough of pork-barrel politics. Most conservatives never liked Bush’s hallmark “compassionate conservatism” catchphrase—does it mean that real conservatism is heartless?—but there was always hope that somewhere, buried beneath the steel tariffs and bloated highway bills, there was a core of actual philosophy.

With the nomination of Miers, whose primary distinction is her loyalty to Bush, it is time to recognize that, in the words of Lionel Trilling, the Republican Party’s pseudo-conservatism has been reduced to only a series of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

Miers was apparently chosen because of her loyalty to the administration and her nonexistent judicial paper trail, which frees her from a Scalia-esque fiery debate over judicial philosophy during the confirmation process. Perhaps Miers has a well thought out constructionist judicial philosophy; perhaps she is a staunch conservative. This, however, isn’t actually important. The issue is that she was nominated specifically to avoid an ideological argument, which is a sign of how Bush’s conservatism doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

This administration was willing to wade through hell and high water for the Bolton nomination because of personal friendship (and, one suspects, just to spite the rest of the world) but has flinched from every actual ideological conflict. Bush has gone five years without casting a veto and caved on almost every domestic argument (excepting tax cuts) from Social Security to Medicaid reform—which metamorphosed from a serious reform empowering individuals to just another entitlement program. He hasn’t seen a spending bill or an expansion of Federal powers that he didn’t like. Cravenly preferring submarine judicial nominees like Roberts and Miers in place of taking a strong conservative stand is simply confirmation of a longstanding pattern.

Without any ideological ballast, the Bush Presidency resembles nothing more than the bastard child of the Harding and Johnson administrations: from cronyism at home (from Brown at FEMA to the Miers nomination) and abroad (Iraq reconstruction contracts), to overly ambitious Great Society spending at home (Medicaid) and quagmire wars (Iraq, again). If, despite a comfortable Senate majority, Bush will not or cannot nominate a bold constructionist to the Supreme Court, it is clear that the administration and the Republican Party at large are without cohesive intellectual principles, message or vision; they are unified only by their short-term desire for tactical victories, a party of greedy tribes—not ideas.

Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07, a Crimson editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Winthrop House.