Another Perspective

Vetting Ahead of Ourselves

A trip down memory lane provides an important lesson on why Republicans need to check out their nominees out earlier rather than later.

By 10.25.05

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I am sympathetic to the conservatives who have reservations about the choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, but where were these people six years ago when President Bush's Republican nomination was sealed?

The Miers pick has spurred many conservatives to finally bemoan the president's woeful track record on the issues they care about. Their legal hero (appropriately) Robert Bork, writing for the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, said Bush backers should rethink their support for him because he "has not governed as a conservative." Citing the president's policies on amnesty for illegal immigrants, reckless federal spending, and signing unconstitutional campaign finance reform into law, Bork said, "This George Bush, like his father, is showing himself to be indifferent, if not actively hostile, to conservative values."

Bork's gripes have been echoed in many other corners, but this is a surprise? Back in 1999 Republicans filled Bush's campaign coffers with more than $193 million -- $96.3 of it for the primaries -- scaring off all serious opponents except for Arizona Sen. John McCain, briefly. Unlike what they are doing now with Miers, conservatives declined to administer a background exam for the former Texas governor to discern how he would likely lead the nation.

This was despite clear warning signs out of Texas about Bush's conservative credentials. Tom Pauken, who chaired the state's Republican Party in 1994 and whose bona fides are well established, warned in May 1999 that Bush was a "me-too Republican."

"His handlers are going to position him in the campaign as a conservative answer," Pauken told an alternative publication, the Austin Chronicle. "So many Republicans who are so desperate to win the White House will say he is our only hope, that we need to vote for him. But grassroots conservatives, movement conservatives, know he's not one of us."

During Bush's campaign for re-election as governor in 1998, he was endorsed by the most powerful Democrat in the state, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. A few other prominent Democrats supported him against their own candidate, Garry Mauro, because as PBS reported at the time, "he has made it a policy to work in a bipartisan way to get his agenda passed." The Washington Post noted in a May 1997 article that Bush was "more likely to draw opposition from his party's right wing than from the Democrats," and that he worked well with Texas House Speaker Pete Laney and the "legendarily terse and strong-willed" Bullock.

"[Bush has] staked out a middle position a lot like Clinton," said Rice University political science professor Bob Stein on the "PBS Newshour" in 1998. "He's taken an enormous amount of heat from the conservative right of his party...."

Despite his ideological shortcomings, conservatives didn't hesitate to help crown Bush as the GOP nominee. The Republican Governors' Association jumped on board early, and by the start of 2000, 25 of the 31 individual GOP state governors had endorsed him. In February the same year 40 Republican senators announced their support of Bush over McCain. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and his colleagues ignored the warnings out of the Lone Star State that its governor was a compromising go-along. In fact, many of them embraced Bush's modus operandi.

"Senate Republicans are very impressed with George W. Bush, his qualifications and the job he's done," Lott told CNN at the time. "As Governor of Texas, he's done some outstanding things in terms of education reform...he worked with the legislature -- Republicans and Democrats got it done."

Now many -- Lott and several other conservative senators like Virginia's George Allen and Kansas's Sam Brownback -- find themselves in the position as Miers skeptics, and wondering how they got there.

"There are a lot more people -- men, women, and minorities -- that are more qualified in my opinion by their experience than she is," Lott said recently in a television interview. "I don't just automatically salute or take a deep bow anytime a nominee is sent [to the Senate]...I have to find out who these people are, and right now, I'm not satisfied with what I know."

Not all conservatives joined Bush's bandwagon during the primaries in 2000, but most did -- resignedly -- by the general election. His head start in fundraising and campaigning was too large to surpass, much less catch.

Perhaps this episode will teach conservatives that next time the vetting process for Supreme Court nominees needs to start extremely early -- with serious scrutiny of the presidential candidate who will be appointing them.

Paul Chesser is an associate editor for the John Locke Foundation.

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Paul Chesser publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, a news aggregator for North Carolina, and is a contributor of articles, research and investigative reports for both national and state-level free-market think tanks.