I've been making documentaries for over 20 years. True to type, I'm a liberal Democrat. I believe America never should have gone into Iraq; I wish health care reform had gone much further; and I worry the Supreme Court is tilting dangerously to the right. But I also like the world of Manuel Miranda, conservative mastermind.
Fellow liberals don't share my admiration for Manny, winner of the Conservative Union's Ronald Reagan Award. A quick Google reveals that progressives' descriptions of Manny run the gamut from "thief" and "hack" to "war criminal." And I'm not going to argue with them. But those who demonize Manny may miss the lessons he has to teach passionate citizens of every ideological stripe.
I met Manny late in 2004, during research for "Advise & Dissent," a feature documentary I was preparing to film behind the scenes of the coming Supreme Court confirmation battle. At that point, Manny didn't cut such an impressive figure. An ad hoc bipartisan coalition had recently run him out of his job as a high-level Senate staffer -- search "Memogate" for details -- and Manny didn't know what he'd be able to do next.
But something about Manny intrigued me, and I placed a bet by filming him as the conservative advocate in an emblematic quartet that also included progressive advocate Ralph Neas (who helped invent modern confirmation politics as head of the "Block Bork" coalition), Senator Arlen Specter (then-Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee), and Senator Patrick Leahy (the Committee's ranking Democrat).
Through the confirmation of Justice John Roberts, I had to wonder if my hunch about Manny was right. He led a lot of conference calls, and said some provocative things -- he felt Judge Roberts was too "vanilla" as a nominee, concealing his true conservatism. But he didn't seem to be doing all that much, or having a significant impact on the confirmation process.
Then, on the heels of Roberts' swearing-in, Pres. Bush nominated Harriet Miers to a second vacancy on the Court. I was feeding my kids breakfast in Brooklyn when I heard the announcement (on NPR, natch). Moments later, my PDA buzzed with Manny's press release, calling the nomination "the most unqualified choice" in 30 years, and "a significant failure." By the time I got to DC that afternoon, Manny was giving back-to-back interviews to denounce his own party's nominee.
From the outside and in retrospect, it's easy to dismiss the short-lived Miers nomination as an absurd joke everyone was in on. But filming behind the scenes with Manny, I witnessed a different history. Opposing Miers was a lonely business at first. The most powerful conservative groups quickly lined up behind Bush's pick, as did most GOP senators, while Democratic leaders sighed in relief that he hadn't chosen an obvious ideologue.
For Manny, that was precisely the problem. This vacancy offered a chance to consolidate a right-leaning judicial philosophy on the high court, an historic opportunity conservatives had been working towards for decades. Harriet Miers was not the woman to get that job done.
Fueled by this conviction, alone in his living room armed with little more than gumption and a Rolodex, Manny went to battle against his president and party. His open opposition soon liberated other conservatives to voice theirs. Together they convinced a few senators it was safe to stand against the White House.
The rest is history. In just a few weeks, the Miers nomination was dead; as the Conservative Union said in awarding Manny its highest honor, "Without him ... Judge Alito would not be on the court today."
My film forcefully illustrates that the way we choose judges has--with help from both sides--become politicized to the point of undermining healthy debate. But in seeking to address that problem, we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. "We the people" must have a voice in what kind of justice we will have--a point on which Ralph Neas and Manny Miranda enthusiastically agree.
Indeed, liberals may soon face their own "Miers moment." Pres. Obama, like Bush at the time of the Miers nomination, is down in the polls and reportedly wary of a confirmation fight. We're told he's leaning towards someone who seems, as Miers did at first, "confirmable."
But for the left, this is also a pivotal historic moment. Justice Stevens, retiring, has been a progressive leader for decades, with considerable influence over swing voters like O'Connor and Kennedy. The Court's conservative bloc is confident and youthful, with a clear judicial vision. Without a strong counter-weight, the 5-4 decisions will go their way for decades to come.
Manny Miranda knows what he believes and is unafraid. Those two qualities allowed him to change the course of history. With another nomination and confirmation unfolding, will liberal advocates be equally outspoken about the judicial philosophy they seek in a Democratic president's Supreme Court nominee? Will those who share my views, in other words, learn a lesson from Manny Miranda?
Advise & Dissent premieres May 5 as the opening selection of DC's Politics on Film festival. David Van Taylor's A Perfect Candidate (1996) was recently named the best political film ever by WashingtonPost.com's "The Fix."
Watch the trailer here.