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Shootout In The GOP Corral

Conservatives are in the middle of a big, fat argument. It's an argument about ideas and principle and it just spiked the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

Republicans were not fighting about strategy and marketing and they ought to be proud of that. Democrats ought to be paying attention, and not with complacency and glee but with some admiration.

Harriet Meirs' late, great nomination, of course, was the tipping point that turned trickles of conservative resentment into a landslide of full bile. It turns out those trickles weren't so benign.

Many conservatives -- including those who might call themselves "movement conservatives" -- were appalled at the federal intrusion into education that Bush led and by the lack of spending cuts that accompanied the tax cuts (which they did like) and the resulting budget deficits. Most hated his expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs, his immigration policy, and found him ineffectual in experimenting with privatizing Social Security.

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They think he's a big government conservative.

Some cons like the president's hawkish approach to terrorism; others are more in the conservative realist school that dislikes foreign adventurism. Most think he's been wobbly on immigration.

They tolerated his nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice, partly because they knew his wasn't the swing vote and partly because Bush had nominated conservatives of their liking for other judgeships. Some rebelled when he opened the spending taps after the political debacle of Katrina.

But Harriet pushed them over the edge.

"Betrayal" became a common zinger. Conservatives have lived for the day they could capture the Supreme Court, just as liberals dread that day. It was the holiest of grails, now lost in a quag-Miers. It was proof that their leader was a phony conservative -- a big-government, do-what-takes, business-as-usual who only gave lip service to the social and religious conservative agenda. The National Review became The National Dim View.

Some of the defenses of Bush by public polemicists have been fascinating, none more than that put forward by David Brooks. In The New York Times (paid content, can't link, sorry), he argued that philosopher-king Bush has "modernized and saved" conservatism.

" Almost single-handedly, Bush reconnected with the positive and idealistic instincts of middle-class Americans. He did it by recasting conservatism more significantly than anyone had since Ronald Reagan. He rejected the prejudice that the private sector is good and the public sector is bad, and he tried to use government to encourage responsible citizenship and community service. He sought to mobilize government so the children of prisoners can build their lives, so parents can get data to measure their school's performance, so millions of AIDS victims in Africa can live another day, so people around the world can dream of freedom."

It takes a lot of deep faith to buy this. The ongoing war in Iraq is helping the world "dream of freedom?" Few conservatives outside of the White House are buying this.

But more fundamentally, I think Brooks is treating George Bush like Chauncey Gardner, the famous "slow "person from Jerzy Kosinski's 1970 novel who became a political cult figure because all comers project onto him what they wish. George Bush has never consistently articulated and advocated the conservative philosophy Brooks describes, at least in my view. I think Brooksism may be clear and consistent; Bushism isn't.

And Brooks ignores huge parts of what Bush has done -- the deficits, the anti-government rhetoric, the dishonest case for war, the hostility to any kind of post-Reagan approach to the environment and disrespect for the "dream of freedom" epitomized by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Fred Barnes' "The Conservative Revolt" has a far more prosaic defense: the administration got cocky and sloppy, the complaining conservatives are babies and the press is egging them on.

I don't think the complaining conservatives are babies. I think many succumbed to a conservative respect for authority for a long time and held their noses as the Bush administration governed without a coherent philosophy, bamboozling them as much as they did other constituencies. The nose-holding is over, for now.

Democrats ought to take note. Each party, of course, thinks it has more infighting than the other one. Democrats, however, won't even acknowledge you, much less fight with you unless you've passed the basic litmus tests. Abortion would be the prime example: if you're an anti-abortion rights Democrat, you don't even have a place at the food fight. Some pro-abortion rights Republicans by contrast, are party stars.

Republicans have better fights. And this was one of them.

Now that Miers has withdrawn, we'll see if the philosophic factions go quietly back to their corners or arguments stay loud -- and potent.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer

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