A House Divided Against Itself

In an age when almost everyone acknowledges that the quality of civic discourse has deteriorated, it’s not uncommon for political debate to degenerate into invective and opprobrium. But what’s unusual – and terribly sad – in the dispute over the Harriet Miers nomination is that, at least for now, the nastiest and most personal fights are within the conservative movement itself.

Certainly, if the Bush Administration can be faulted for anything in the course of the Miers nomination process, it’s for having managed to achieve what Howard Dean, John Kerry, Tom Daschle and so many other Democrats have sought and failed to accomplish: Dividing and alienating the conservative base. It is hard to overstate the sense of betrayal, outrage and dismay over the Miers nomination in some corners of the conservative movement.

Indeed, nearly every conservative in America was initially disappointed in the Miers pick. Certainly, Ms. Miers doesn’t have a well known judicial philosophy, and although she is a very bright and (by all accounts) honest and lovely person, her views haven’t been articulated and widely disseminated over a period of years, unlike those of many brilliant judges on the “conservative bench.” Nearly all can agree that it’s nerve-wracking to have to “wait and see” exactly what Ms. Miers’ views are.

But in light of current circumstances, the question becomes: Does disappointment and suspicion justify working or hoping for the collapse of the nomination in particular and the Bush presidency in general? And, even more broadly, does the anger that some feel justify risking the destruction of a conservative coalition that has served America well in recent elections?

Those who support the Miers nomination – or who are willing to wait for the hearings before reaching a conclusion about her – believe that the answer is “no.” In this view, there is too much at stake, including future Supreme Court nominations, progress in the war on terror, tax cuts, social security reform and other issues to allow as yet unproven fears about Miers’ judicial proclivities to provoke a political meltdown. Certainly, this calculation may be at odds with that of the conservatives who oppose Miers without reservation, but there’s nothing shallow or dishonorable about it.

Nor is there anything inherently “cynical” or dishonorable about refusing to support the Miers nomination. Of course, it’s essential that the decision to oppose is based on actual facts, and made only after both a cool-headed evaluation of the nominee and her record, and a “conscience check” to ensure that the antagonism isn’t based on frustration with other perceived shortcomings of the Bush administration, wounded pride that one’s “advice” went unheeded, or intellectual vanity. But certainly there are people of good will and impeccable conservative credentials on both sides of the argument – and their views are worthy of respect even on the part of those who don’t agree with them.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Harriet Miers nomination – even, Heaven forbid, in the (unlikely) event that it works out as badly as the worst critics fear – the conservative movement can continue to flourish, so long as it doesn’t allow conflict about this one issue to destroy decades of unity and progress. Certainly, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and there’s no harm in conservatives disagreeing, so long as debate is conducted in the spirit of humility, with full recognition that the “other” side’s position may prove to be correct. But when arguments become personal, laced with ad hominem attacks on other conservatives’ motives, integrity and intelligence, the damage can be incalculable.

Conservatives have no control over the decisions that have already culminated in the selection of Harriet Miers. And our control over the ultimate outcome of the nomination may indeed be limited. But each of us has complete control over how we conduct ourselves in debating the best course of action. And we have an absolute obligation to make sure that our words and deeds are worthy of the years of struggle that people like Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, Phyllis Schlafly and others devoted to the conservative cause – even when some of us may fear that all they fought for is in imminent danger.

It’s long been proclaimed that America couldn’t be conquered from without – but it could be defeated from within. Perhaps the same holds true for the conservative movement. And maybe it would be well for each of us – when we open our mouths, pick up a pen, or sit at our keyboards – to keep that possibility firmly in mind. No matter the faction with which any conservative is allied in the current debate, the conservatives on the other side aren’t enemies; they’re allies.

"Shill." "Cynic." "Underground Democratic troll." "Sexist."

Surely all of us can do better.

[This piece originally appeared at The One Republic.]