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Honest Conservatives Awaken

This column was written by Michael Tomasky.
Some of you are going to think the dog spiked my cactus juice when you read this, but I have to say I actually admire some of the conservative dissent on Harriet Miers.

Yes, the vast majority of the criticism centers on the fact that Miers doesn't appear (to them, anyway) to be a reliable conservative. She voted for tax hikes while on the Dallas City Council, she sponsored a speaker series at SMU that featured liberal women, and so on. This, I understand, is what really has conservatives howling.

But there has also been a second line of criticism complaining that she just isn't a serious enough choice. George Will, Charles Krauthammer, et al. certainly have intelligence; that Bush chose Miers insults it. I can't argue with that, and I even applaud it.

It had to start sometime. Maybe the Miers fiasco will mean that some on the right will finally take a stand in defense of their principles instead of always making political excuses for the administration.

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Unlike the boy who cried wolf too many times, today's Republicans – and conservative commentators – are the boys who never cried wolf. On the size of government and the size of the deficit, for example, the Bush administration has been as anti-conservative as an administration can possibly be – and has faced only scattered criticisms from most conservatives.

On other matters, the right has jumped from trying to brush a problem under the rug to outright apology. I don't recall that it was ever Ronald Reagan's great hope to defenestrate the Geneva Conventions and apply lawless torture methods to prisoners, and I'm dead certain that Reagan did not want the rest of the world to hate the United States. And yet the right-wing commentariat offered grotesque defenses of Abu Ghraib and applauds the Bush administration's immature willed insularity.

Now, let's say a Democratic president did the following. First, he cut the size of government as dramatically as Bush has increased it. Second, he – or she, not that we should have any particular she in mind – made budget balancing the highest domestic priority, over any kind of spending and in any sort of economic circumstance (i.e., even in a sluggish market with low tax revenues). Third, he/she launched a war for which there was initially broad support in the party but which had curdled badly and shown inarguably that the commander in chief and his/her top people had made catastrophic assumptions and decisions. And fourth, he/she put forward an obviously unqualified nominee for the Supreme Court.

There is no chance, zero, that this Democrat would still enjoy broad support from the liberal commentariat. It just isn't the way we play. In some respects and at certain times, this might be a problem. My friend Michael Waldman, an attorney in New York and a former Clinton speechwriter, has the theory that Democrats and liberals have little serious real-life experience in backing their president, and he's absolutely right. There have been only three in "modern" (post-Vietnam and Watergate) American history, and liberals helped hound two of them out of office: Lyndon Johnson was despised for Vietnam, and Jimmy Carter faced a 1980 primary challenge from his left as an incumbent. That leaves Bill Clinton, who was a controversial and only partially successful figure within his party until 1998, when nearly everyone to the left of Joe Lieberman interpreted that year's events as a coup d'état and thus rallied to his defense.

In other words, it took a sexual witch-hunt for the progressive elite to rally around a Democratic president. From the perspective of people who want to replicate the right-wing infrastructure item for item, it's a bad thing that liberals don't back their leaders more reflexively. But from the perspective of intellectual honor, it's a good thing: Liberal commentators don't make nearly as many excuses for a Democratic president as conservative commentators do for a Republican chief.

When I was visiting fellow at the Kennedy School, I did a study, showing how the major conservative editorial pages backed Bush far, far more than the major liberal editorial pages backed Clinton. My study went only through early 2003, and covered only two editorial pages (The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal). But the evidence that we read in the papers and magazines every day tells us that little has changed. The right-wing press goes out of its way to say that the Katrina damage was Ray Nagin's fault, that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are always guilty of "obstructionism," and so on.

One wonders how much longer these people can keep covering for a president whose incompetence has clearly caught up with him and whose chief loyalty is not to conservative principles of governance but to holding power. It may not last all that much longer: In April of next year, Doubleday will publish "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy." The author is Bruce Bartlett, as conservative as conservatives come – a Washington Times columnist, a former Heritage Foundation fellow, a former Reagan administration staffer under Gary Bauer. Those are what I call credentials.

I, of course, haven't seen Bartlett's book, but I'm sure anxious to. So there's finally someone on the right who's willing to say what's so obviously true? Bartlett will undoubtedly be smeared when the time comes as either a turncoat or a besotted Reagan loyalist who's living in the past. In the meantime, the search for the last honest conservative continues.

By Michael Tomasky. Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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