Manuel Miranda is a charming, avuncular GOP operative in his mid-forties who is known in Republican circles as “Manny.” In 2004, he enjoyed fifteen minutes of more widespread fame. Miranda, who at the time was the judicial nominations counsel to then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and the Senate Judiciary Committee, had downloaded memos detailing the Democratic judicial nomination strategy from an internal committee server and leaked them to conservative groups and the Wall Street Journal. When Miranda’s role was discovered, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch called the act “simply unacceptable.” In the uproar that followeddubbed “Memogate” by the Washington pressMiranda was driven from his job in disgrace. The Hill later declared that he “had one foot in the political graveyard.”
In some circles, however, Miranda’s conduct wasn’t exactly a death sentence. In February 2006, David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, spoke of Memogate when he presented Miranda with the organization’s Reagan Award, saying, “[Democrats] no doubt thought that it would all end with that, that Manny Miranda would slink off into the darkness and never be heard from again … But it turns out that he’s more than just a principled conservative: he’s a man who doesn’t know the meaning of surrender.” Miranda’s reputation for ruthless tactics and political skill, not to mention his formidable network of conservative contacts, ensured that his calls would still be returned. In the days after the Republican defeat in the midterm election last November, Miranda again picked up the phone. He had a big idea.
Miranda had observed the Republican meltdown over immigration from afar during the midterm campaign, and thought he’d figured out a way to get the party out of its bind. His answer was to forge a grand coalition on the issue by bringing religious conservativeswho had withheld their considerable clout from the debate in 2006into the fold.
That’s not such a simple proposition. According to a Pew poll last year, close to two-thirds of evangelicals believe illegal immigrants represent a threat to American culture. On the other hand, a sizable minority of evangelicals believe their faith compels them to help immigrants in need. So Miranda, the deeply observant Catholic son of Cuban immigrants, came up with a compromise: a one-off amnesty for the undocumented relatives of U.S. citizens, in exchange for a permanent change to the Fourteenth Amendment that would deny citizenship to the American-born children of illegal immigrants. The bargain was a shrewd one. Conservatives who take a hard line on immigration are particularly enraged about what they call “anchor babies”: newborns who gain automatic citizenship and make it harder for the government to send their undocumented families home. At the same time, by offering a onetime legalization for the illegal relatives of U.S. citizens, Miranda was trying to address a major concern of those evangelicals who worry that a tough policy will break families apart.
By the weekend after the election, Miranda had developed a mission statement for a grand conservative alliance on immigration. Despiteor perhaps because ofthe Memogate affair, he was able to enlist some of the brightest lights in conservatism, corralling them at gloomy postelection conferences at think tanks and on the Hill. Miranda named the new venture Families First on Immigration. By the time he began discussing FFI openly in conservative circles, in early December, he’d signed on a number of conservative icons: Keene; Gary Bauer, the leader of American Values; Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition; Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association; and direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie. On January 8, FFI surprised Washington with a letter to President Bush and the new Democratic leadership. “We believe that if we can leave the confines of this past year’s debate, we can help you formulate and win wide support for a coherent immigration achievement,” the letter read. Miranda’s ultimate aim was bold: to force presidential candidates to pledge to major immigration reform on his terms in the lead-up to the 2008 election.
Miranda has succeeded at these kinds of quixotic ventures before. A sturdy, round-faced man, he radiates the air of an efficient small-town mayor. Washington is filled with “Friends of Manny”students and activists he’s nurtured into positions within the conservative establishment. “Guys like Manny, they know the Hill. But it’s more than that,” says Rabbi Aryeh Spero, the leader of Caucus for America, and another founding member of FFI. “He can take an idea from start to finish, and make it work.”
Miranda made his first foray into politics in the leadership of the Second Stewards Society, a controversial male-only secret society at Georgetown University. He graduated in the early 1980s and became a lawyer, joining the law firm White & Case. But he never quite left campus. Later that decade, he became head of the Cardinal Newman Society, engaging the conservative Catholic educational organization in the culture-war battles then gripping American universities. About ten years ago, he decided that Georgetown needed a conservative student women’s group to combat the profile and feminist rhetoric of the campus women’s center. Despite the fact that Miranda wasn’t a studentor a womanhe wrote the organization’s constitution and carefully vetted female undergraduates to front the group. Called the Women’s Guild, it flooded the campus with a compendium of 1950s-era romantic advice, and although its membership barely cleared double digits, the Washington Post Style section devoted a front-page feature to the groupfailing to note Miranda’s role in its creation.
After resigning from his Judiciary Committee job in 2004, Miranda faced unemployment and a Justice Department investigation. Neither slowed him down. He started an organization from his townhouse initially called the National Coalition to End Judicial Filibusters, later the Third Branch Conference, devoted to masterminding the conservative movement’s strategy on judicial nominations. As the group’s chairman and only official staffer, he engineered two of the movement’s most acrimonious victories using his wide personal network, which includes conservative icons, many Second Stewards alumni and protégés, and numerous grassroots organizations. Despite the TBC’s small size, he also became a reliable media expert on the subject of judicial nominations. In 2005, Miranda helped whip up pressure on Republican senators to support the so-called “nuclear option,” which would have ended the Democratic minority’s right to filibuster judicial nominations. The tactic allowed the GOP-controlled Senate to confirm several judges that Democrats had initially opposed, making Miranda a conservative folk hero. Later that year, Miranda organized the massive conservative opposition that led to the demise of Harriet Miers’s Supreme Court nomination.
In some ways, FFI resembles Miranda’s other successful ventures. For one thing, it has no full-time staffin fact, there don’t appear to be any staffers at all besides Miranda. It also seemingly has no mailing address, Web site, official phone number, or public e-mail address. In other ways, it’s a departure. This time, Miranda is attempting an intervention rather than an attack, and already there are signs that his proposed compromise may be too clever by half. Richard Viguerie, for instance, objected to the limited legalization Miranda proposed in his January letter, stating that any Republican seeking the presidential nomination must hold a firm line on immigration. “I know what Manny’s trying to do; that’s why I signed on to begin with. But there’s a line here,” Viguerie says. “Any Republican candidate who tries to compromise on [amnesty] will lose in 2008, and I and a lot of others will work very hard to make that happen.” And last month, when Miranda told the news organization Inter Press Service that if the Minutemen, the anti-immigration volunteer border patrol, “agreed to our fundamental principles, they could join on,” he was swiftly criticized by Hispanic evangelical leaders, who represent the fastest-growing segment of the evangelical population. “It’s great that white evangelicals are finally speaking out on this issue,” says Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr. of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “But so far, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with what we’re hearing.” Miranda, who has never found a political dustup he couldn’t win, may finally have met his match.