Conservative intellectuals have made a virtue of loyalty, and their rebellions are like plagues of locusts: rare and intense.
Before the uproar over President George W. Bush’s latest Supreme Court pick, Harriet Miers, the conservative elite’s most memorable recent breach came when Mr. Bush’s father broke his 1988 campaign pledge to oppose any new taxes. But the Miers rebellion reminded some older conservatives of another moment: July 26, 1971, when a dozen leaders of the small, marginal conservative movement met in William F. Buckley’s East Side apartment (where else?) to craft a public response to President Richard Nixon’s trip to Communist China.
The group—which would become known as the “Manhattan 12”—denounced “excessive taxation and inordinate welfarism” before moving on to the final straw: “overtures to Red China.” They declared that they would “suspend their support” for Mr. Nixon, and went on to campaign for an obscure primary rival (John Ashbrook, for those keeping score at home) in 1972. The break with Nixon marked an important, albeit lesser-known, milestone of the conservatives’ rise to power.
Now, more than three decades later, the descendants of the Manhattan 12 are in open mutiny against a President they helped elect. In fact, they are openly comparing Mr. Bush to Nixon. The question is whether the conservative intelligentsia can convert its status and access into influence on an administration they’d thought was their own.
“We had fewer resources, less power,” recalled one of the original Manhattan 12, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to anger the White House. “But we had more leverage because Nixon hadn’t been reelected and he was insecure.”
After years of small disappointments, from swelling spending to trade tariffs to expanding Medicaid, the Miers nomination came as a gut punch to the mostly secular conservative thinkers.
Their dissent began just hours after Ms. Miers’ nomination was announced, with Mr. Bush insisting, “I picked the best person I could find.” By 10:25 a.m that morning, conservative pundit William Kristol was up on the Web site of his Weekly Standard magazine, declaring himself “Disappointed, Depressed and Demoralized.” George Will weighed in the next day, dominating the buzz with his observation, “it is not important that she be confirmed.” Two days later, Charles Krauthammer did him one better: “If Harriet Miers were not a crony of the president of the United States, her nomination to the Supreme Court would be a joke, as it would have occurred to no one else to nominate her.” By the next week, Mr. Kristol was back in front of the pack, calling for Ms. Miers to withdraw.
This is far more blustery than the stiff 1971 statement from the Manhattan 12, which stated that the group had decided to “suspend our support” for Nixon. Today’s conservative network of columns, broadcast and cable outlets provides a bullhorn unimaginable in 1971, when the declaration was published in two small journals. But while the conservative elite of the early 1970’s drew attention, and concessions, from the first-term Nixon White House, today’s conservative intellectuals are unexpectedly impotent in the face of the repeated slights of George W. Bush’s second term. The intellectual class still has access to the West Wing—or at least the high-ceilinged event rooms—and the President hosted a gathering in honor of National Review’s 50th-anniversary party even as the Miers furor was unfolding. But Mr. Bush seemed unconcerned by the resentment simmering beneath the polite applause and requisite smiles, at one point winking at Mr. Will.
“They are leading an army of none, the conservative intelligentsia, in revolting against Bush,” said Kieran Mahoney, the Republican political consultant whose father, J. Daniel Mahoney, was a founder of the state Conservative Party and one of the Manhattan 12. “Bush’s support among the grassroots rank-and-file conservatives in the United States of America is as wide and deep as it could conceivably be. He is rock-solid with those people.”
As Ms. Miers’ confirmation hearing approaches, a split between the secular intellectuals and evangelical leaders is becoming clearer. The intellectuals are sharpening their denunciations and calling for Ms. Miers to step aside, while religious conservatives are standing beside the President and the nominee.
In the days since Ms. Miers’ nomination was announced, the nation’s most important evangelical leaders have hit the pundit circuit in order to vouch for the nominee’s good character and conservative credentials. James Dobson, the influential chairman of the evangelical advocacy group Focus on the Family, has been the loudest—and most controversial—cheerleader, but other influential figures like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land and Watergate felon-turned-minister Charles Colson have also been reading from the White House talking points about Ms. Miers (which include attacks on “elitist” conservative intellectuals). And while some leaders, including onetime Presidential candidate Gary Bauer, have attacked Mr. Bush’s pick, their doubts have been nothing compared to the shrieks from the right’s comparatively secular intelligentsia, whose newfound outrage appears to know no bounds.
But the backlash is promoting its own backlash. Lucianne Goldberg, the conservative literary agent who was among the guests at the National Review gala, remarked that condemning the Miers nomination became the evening’s favorite parlor game.
“Each one tried to outdo the other with the heaviest vocabulary in criticism of Bush. They were strangling on their vocabularies,” she said.
Ms. Goldberg’s Web site has been home to the backlash backlash. Here, as on sites run by radio commentator Hugh Hewitt and other White House loyalists, self-styled rank-and-file conservatives have picked up on the White House charges of elitism and begun lobbing the kind of accusations at “pointy-headed” East Coast intellectuals that they usually reserve for liberals. “Elitist bunk!” wrote “Joe Friday” in response to Mr. Kristol’s column calling on Ms. Miers to withdraw.”
This kind of division between coastal elite and heartland volk, secular scholars and religious rank-and-file, has been simmering quietly beneath the surface of the conservative alliance since its birth. It is the movement’s unspoken compromise, the wrinkle in the marriage bed, and it is a measure of the Miers controversy that it has managed to unleash these tensions within the right.
Some intellectuals haven’t taken kindly to the accusations of elitism.
“I’m sorry, but I’m getting so much b.s. email from holier-than-thou ‘real Americans,’ ‘real conservatives’ and outside-the-beltway free thinkers I have to get this off my chest,” wrote a Miers critic, Jonah Goldberg, on the National Review Online message board. “I was rejected from every college I applied to.” Well, almost—he added that he eventually was “accepted at a fairly good liberal arts college (Goucher College in Baltimore) largely because I had pretty good SATs and I was a male at a time when my school was going from all-female to coed.”
(Mr. Goldberg did note that the Miers appointment not only is dividing the movement, but families as well. His mother is the aforementioned Lucianne Goldberg, who supports the nomination.)
But at the end of the day, the scholar class’ criticisms are primarily intellectual rather than ideological in nature. They may have doubts about the depth of Ms. Miers’ conservatism and her commitment to core Republican values like overturning Roe v. Wade and ending affirmative action. But it’s her lack of scholarly heft—or, as Mr. Krauthammer wrote with acid scorn, the “nonexistence” of her “constitutional scholarship, experience and engagement”—that strikes them not merely as an affront, but a betrayal.
“I’m beginning to think that this appointment was an expression of the president’s contempt for the conservative intelligentsia,” wrote pundit Andrew Sullivan.
Added Robert Bork, the godfather of right-wing jurisprudence, whose own Supreme Court nomination imploded in controversy in 1987: “It’s a slap in the face to the conservatives who’ve been building a conservative legal movement for 20 years.”
Revenge for Bork
For those still smarting from the borking of Judge Bork, the hearings to replace Justices William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor were supposed to symbolically repair that defeat. These hearings would be the culmination of decades of meticulous effort to move the court back toward the framers’ “original intent.” True to their hawkish reputations, they wanted a fight. They wanted to go toe-to-toe with the weakened, minority-party Democrats and then vanquish them in a blaze of rhetoric and “yea” votes. Mr. Bush’s nomination of John Roberts as chief justice was a promising start, many conservatives agreed, an apt leader for this epic moment. But the fact that the President “folded” on his second nomination—that the person he chose to consummate the conservative revolution seems to be, in their view, a little-known cipher—has been almost as distressing as the fact that he ignored their advice.
“The reason this is a disappointment is that this was the fight,” said James Higgins, one of the organizers of New York’s conservative Monday Meeting. “You always hear, ‘You have to give in on this one, because the fight’s down the road.’ This was the fight.”
Taken on its own, Mr. Bush’s attempt to call a truce in the ideological wars might have been a grave enough offense in conservative circles, punishable by several days’ worth of public griping. But coupled with what many right-wing intellectuals see as a long list of White House sins—from relatively relaxed immigration policies to expanding government spending—Mr. Bush’s Supreme Court pick began an unexpected civil war. Never mind the string of Federalist Society members he nominated to the appellate bench, the high-stakes invasion of Iraq, the supply-side tax cuts or the litany of lesser-known policies he took straight from the conservative handbook. To some conservative thinkers, all those victories seem to have evaporated in the political equivalent of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule.
“He’s disappointed conservatives at almost every turn …. So I think you can see why [we] regard this as the last straw,” said Judge Bork during a phone conversation with The Observer. “I think a lot of conservatives are going to say, ‘To hell with him.’”
For many of today’s staunchest conservative thinkers, this is their Manhattan 12 moment, the hour of reckoning with Mr. Bush’s Presidency. They have tallied their disappointments and, as the 12 wrote in their manifesto, they have concluded that the time has come to “break with the administration.”
But the smaller, milder-mannered Manhattan 12 had real leverage over their wayward President; Nixon was facing re-election, after all. In meetings with White House officials, including Pat Buchanan and Henry Kissinger, the Manhattan 12 got concrete promises: Nixon would abandon his foundering Family Assistance Plan (authored by the administration’s house Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan), increase defense spending and stick with then–Vice President Spiro Agnew as his running mate. (Agnew did in fact remain on the ticket, only to resign in 1973 after pleading no contest to corruption charges dating to his time as governor of Maryland.)
“For a small window, we really had some leverage,” said Allan Ryskind, an editor at the conservative periodical Human Events, who was one of the signers.
This time around, Mr. Bush is blithely pressing ahead, secure, so far, in the support of the evangelical base and paying little attention to the intellectuals who have congratulated themselves for years on shaping the conservative movement.
Now, all the editorial writers, columnists and critics can do is scold the President in public and vow that they won’t be fooled this way again.
“Some of us will have an influence on how history is written,” said Thomas Winter, a key author of the Manhattan 12 declaration. “But [Mr. Bush is] not running again, so in that narrow sense, he’s free to do what ever he wants.”