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Sexism and the Supreme Court?

Conservative Perkins and former GOP congresswoman Molinari play Hardball
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Gender and religion have dominated the debate about the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

Is she being unfairly criticized because she's a woman?  And will her membership in a Christian Evangelical church be a help or a hindrance?

President Bush weighed in on Wednesday.

"People are interested to know why I picked Harriet Miers," he told reporters. "They want to know Harriet Miers' background, they want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions.  Part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion.  Part of it has to do with the fact that she was a pioneer woman and a trailblazer in the law in Texas."

On Wednesday evening, MSNBC's Chris Matthews talked to Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and former Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari about Miers' religion and her gender.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Tony Perkins, do you think religion is an important factor in selecting any public official for any office in our Constitution.

TONY PERKINS, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL:  Should not be a qualifying factor.  There should be no religious test.  We have argued against those on the Senate that try to disqualify people based on religion, and on the same hand I don't think it should be used to qualify someone.  I think what we had in this situation is that because there was so little known about this nominee they were trying to describe who she was, what she stood for, and that was used.  I think it was a mistake. 

MATTHEWS:  Is the president off key here in trying to woo the conservatives to support this nomination initially -- have to get to the Democrats later -- by saying she's a religious woman?  That doesn't seem to be striking a bell. 

PERKINS:  No, because so many us for a long time have argued that there should not be a religious test.  There should not a religious test. 

MATTHEWS:  But he's trying to suggest that since she's a cultural conservative, an evangelical, she'll fight Roe v. Wade, she'll make certain decisions.  Isn't that what he's trying to do?

PERKINS:  But it's being presented in the absence of solid evidence to show a judicial philosophy.  They're trying to bolster the case for her.  We have not taken a position on Ms. Miers; we're taking a wait and see until there's more evidence that's out there.  That in and of itself is not evidence to base a decision on one's judicial philosophy. 

MATTHEWS:  I'm watching Arlen Specter, the chairman of the committee, with great fascination.  He's offered up ideas like, "We'll begin hearings when she says she's ready."  Now he's changed that -- it's now going to be a month from now.  He is certainly keeping his powder dry.  What about moderate Republicans, that you used to be one of when you were active in politics -- people like Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island and the two women senators from Maine and Specter -- are they happy with this public claim that one of the great things about this candidate is, she's an evangelical. 

SUSAN MOLINARI, FMR CONGRESSWOMAN:  I haven't talked to them.  I think I agree with Tony.  I think the smart thing for any United States senator to do right now is to wait and see.  There is not a lot known about Harriet Miers.  She is going to be given her opportunity to express her views and positions and her philosophy before the United States Senate.  That's how it's supposed to work. 

Quite frankly I think those who are coming out with harsh judgment before they have heard from her -- and Senator Specter is the first one who has advanced this -- let's just wait and hear what she has to say. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the issue of gender ... the first lady was asked about it, and she said possibly that she's a victim of gender discrimination.  And then of all people Eleanor Smeal -- this is first time in history that Laura Bush and Eleanor Smeal have found common ground.  She's been much more ardent about this, saying she is a victim of sexism.  Is that just her waving her battle axe, Eleanor Smeal, just saying this is a good chance to fight for women no matter what the truth is, or do you believe that she's getting different and tougher treatment than a male candidate would be getting? 

MOLINARI:  I think it depends on who we're talking about.  There are some people who clearly say, this was our moment to establish the conservative court and we don't know who she is or what she stands for at this point.  These are people who have supported Edith Clement and other conservative women. 

MATTHEWS:  So it's not gender.

MOLINARI:  I do think there are some people who are dismissing her readily and saying I'm not comfortable, she's not qualified, she's not intellectually capable.  All these problems because they do have some gender problems. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this one of these old yesterday kind of things, like the weaker sex, and by the fact she's a woman, she's more easily shifted?

MOLINARI:  For some -- not for everybody.  But for some clearly. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do people believe that -- I wouldn't believe it -- why would you believe that a woman would be more easily encouraged to move to the left like so many male judges have. 

PERKINS:  I discount that.  There might be a few out there that hold that view.  But I think it's a very disingenuous argument.  It's like the left uses the word racist to just end all debate. 

MATTHEWS:  The race card.

PERKINS:  They use the race card.  I think what you have here is, instead of engaging in legitimate debate about qualifications of a candidate, you have these charges of, that's sexist, that's elitism. 

MATTHEWS:  Clarence Thomas -- and I've never criticized the guy -- Clarence Thomas referred to a hi-tech lynching when he was gone at.  That worked.  He did it on prime time television.  A lot of people go, whoa, I better step back.  Using that card, either the gender or race card, it's always useful. 

PERKINS:  You need to be very careful because it stifles public discussion. 

MATTHEWS:  That's why the people use it. 

PERKINS:  They do.  But I don't think the administration should be using that when people are raising legitimate concerns. 

MATTHEWS:  So you think it's wrong to use the gender card.

PERKINS:  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  You think the first lady shouldn't have done what she did? 

MOLINARI:  She responded to a question. 

MATTHEWS:  No, but you think she should have stayed mum on that?

PERKINS:  I think this is a talking point put out by the administration. 

MATTHEWS:  You think the first lady was coached to say that?  Is that why he brought her into this conversation with that photo op at the Habitat for Humanity?
PERKINS:  I don't know.  I just know that bringing up those issues stifles debate, which the public deserves to have, over the merits of this nominee. 

MATTHEWS:  Conservatives have the right to discuss their candidate, right? 


MOLINARI:  But I think there's also something that has to be missing.  That is that there's tremendous political -- and rightly so -- pressure on this administration to pick a woman.  And I think we have to stay focused on that. 

MATTHEWS:  That's called a quota system. ... When you just pick a woman, rather than the right woman-- affirmative action is going out to find a woman of equal caliber to the male candidates. 

PERKINS:  And there are many out there that are qualified.

MATTHEWS:  They didn't go to them. 

MOLINARI:  And there are many out there, and we don't know Harriet Miers is not one of them. 

PERKINS:  We don't know that.  We don't know that.

MOLINARI:  Let's wait and see.

PERKINS:  But there are others that we wouldn't even have to ask the question about it.  We would know.

MATTHEWS:  Bill Kristol, a very brilliant guy and also a great propagandist, has put out the word that he thinks that Harriet Miers should fall on the sword.  In other words, save the president the problem of her not looking good in the hearings and withdraw.  Do you take that is a serious proposition, that somebody like her would ever withdraw after this build up? 

PERKINS:  I think it would be hard for this administration to pull back at this point.  Knowing the president, once he chooses a course, he sticks to it.  Whether or not Harriet Miers decides she doesn't want to go through with this and she pulled back, I don't know if she would do that. 

MATTHEWS:  In the late night grind around four in the morning she's going to say, I can't memorize all these cases. 

PERKINS:  It's going to be tough

MOLINARI:  I don't want the job.

PERKINS:  Put it in the context; she's got to follow John Roberts, who did a masterful job in the hearings before the committee.  She's met with some of the senators.  Some of the senators have not expressed overwhelming impressions. 

MATTHEWS:  Once again you're being very calming. Let me ask Susan Molinari, does she owe womanhood a stick-tuitivness on this? 

MOLINARI:  That's kind of a heavy mantle to put on any woman. 

MATTHEWS:  That doesn't mean it's on her.

MOLINARI:  It's been on her since the day she stepped out of high school and really has been quite a crusader on behalf of women in business and politics.  I think she owes us some time to hear what she has to say.  This is not unusual.  There's ten justices that have appointed from the Executive Branch, 38 who had no judicial experience.  They were not decried or derided immediately as having no experience, no judicial philosophy.  The United States senators waited until they testified to hear what they wanted to hear or not.

MATTHEWS:  But does she carry the burden of being a woman for all womankind in saying if she drops out now because this is too difficult that it's going to halt the advance of women in our society? 

MOLINARI:  Well, I would certainly hope -- and I have no inside information whatsoever -- that if she did drop out, that the next appointment that the president would propose would be a woman. 

Watch each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.