Wednesday, May 27, 2009


What Do You Do With A Girl Like Sonia?

In the perfect world, the Republican Party should have no problem strongly criticizing Judge Sonia Sotomayor. She appears to be a fairly consistent liberal judge on the circuit court; the New Haven firefighters racial discrimination case seems to be what could be considered low-hanging fruit to go after her (indeed, the Supreme Court could very well overturn her own decision before the confirmation hearings begin); she's got more than few problematic public statements that suggest either a bias toward activism or identity consciousness. 

That's the perfect world attack GOP senators could follow against the judge. 

But while some of those issues will undoubtedly come up, Republicans are unlikely to lay much of a glove on the judge?  Why?  Because while judicial nominations should be argued over questions of the Constitution and legal theory, in fact it invariably comes down to narrative.  As Ken Duberstein writes in The Daily Beast, it's usually how the narrative of the nominee is framed before the public and the media.  Sometimes, however, the narrative can be turned on the opposition.  That's what Clarence Thomas did to some great effect in 1991.  After the Anita Hill story broke, Thomas declared in the hearings that he was the victim of a"high-tech lynching." With interlocutors like heavily-accented Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin leading the battle against Thomas, the words stung. Democrats were thrown for a loop. 

The Sotomayor hearings aren't likely to have a moment like that because Republicans won't let them get that far.  Because the judge is a lady -- and a Latina lady -- the party is acutely aware of its problems with the Hispanic vote.  RNC Chairman Michael Steele was, surprising for him, rather muted in his reaction to Sotomayor

"You want to be careful," he said when asked about juggling Hispanic outreach with potential opposition to Sotomayor, "You don't want to be perceived as a bully."

Indeed, Steele was mild in his initial jabs, calling Sotomayor an "interesting pick" with "overwhelming political overtones to it."  

Perhaps his caution reflects the fact that his party is in one of its most vulnerable positions ever in terms of identity politics. A few days earlier, one of last year's candidate for the nomination basically said that having Steele as chairman made the party "immune" racism charges.   

"I think [Steele] has sought to be, first of all, a very strong spokesperson," Mike Huckabee told The Tennessean on Saturday, before speaking at a church service. "I'm not sure anyone else could be as effective in challenging the Obama policies any more so than Michael."

Asked why that's the case, Huckabee answered: "Well, I believe that that no one is gonna be able to use the racism charge."

 So, Huckabee says that Steele's race makes it easier for the GOP to go after Obama -- without being called racist. This statement came not too long after Steele himself made the claim that Obama wasn't properly vetted by the press because Obama was black.  And so, a heavily white party finds itself hamstrung in launching what could be considered completely legitimate lines of attack on a judicial nominee.  Even in the best of circumstances, given the GOP's depleted numbers in the Senate, this would be a losing battle, but with the demographic element thrown in, it seems a hapless task.  And, of course, it doesn't help when Huckabee can't even get the nominee's name right

Heck , the GOP doesn't even have a female senator on the Judiciary Committee which will be questioning Sotomayor (there are two female Democrats on the committee). So, recognizing that they don't have a Senate conference -- to use Bill Clinton's phrase -- that "looks like America,"  Senate Republicans will have to tip-toe around a Supreme Court candidate they might otherwise would love bring down.


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