On Thursday at 8:52 p.m. ET, the Senate Judiciary Committee formally ended the confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, in the committee’s consideration of her qualifications for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The consensus opinion is that, despite the Republicans’ obligatory harrumphing and a needlessly protracted fixation on Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” phrase, the judge will be approved by the committee, moving the issue to the full Senate, which now enjoys a Democratic supermajority. Barring an extinction-level event, Sotomayor will be confirmed in the next few weeks as the first Latina associate justice of the U.S, Supreme Court (and a presumably wise one at that).
The relative ease with which this is happening — even South Carolina Republican pepper pot and Sen. Lindsey Graham said this week that barring a complete meltdown by the nominee, his party didn’t have the ammunition to stop Sotomayor’s confirmation — makes you wonder what conservatives in Congress thought would be truly achieved by working to derail President Obama’s choice to replace the retired Justice David Souter.
Why all this reflexive opposition; was it all just a show for the bedrock of the party, or a way of making sure they didn’t look like a pushover? Is the GOP that insecure? Or do conservatives feel a need or an obligation to carve out a distinction between themselves and the president’s choice for the high court, even when they can’t really find a distinction sharp enough to slow the confirmation process?
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This tic of antagonism has animated American politics from the beginning of American politics; in the hearings just ended, the nation was witness to varying degrees of bad behavior from Graham, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, actions that reinforce the us-versus-them aspects of our politics, rather than act to overcome them.
Many questions hinged on Sotomayor’s judicial temperament, her embrace of “empathy” as a factor in some of her decisions, and of course the words “wise Latina” (a bit of judicial hyperbole Sotomayor used years ago and no doubt mightily regrets right now).
But when Graham flatly says that Sotomayor would be confirmed absent a complete catastrophe, the question becomes why Republicans went so aggressively through the motions of partisanship in the first place. If they had substantive objections to Sotomayor’s appointment, that would be one thing. But the attention committee Republicans paid to the cosmetic, the peripheral and the subjective revealed more shortcomings about the Republicans than about Judge Sotomayor and her qualifications.
Among those shortcomings facing the Republican Party next year, election year 2010, will be a persistent lack of appeal for Republican candidates by Latino voters. The drubbing the GOP took at the polls in November had much to do with aggressive Hispanic voter turnout, something that’s not expected to disappear next year. Latino Americans are testing their newfound electoral clout in different ways; some Latino evangelical leaders are already contemplating a boycott of next year’s decennial census.
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It’s a safe bet that the style of the GOP inquiry and commentary directed at Judge Sotomayor will come back to haunt Republicans next year.
Rightly or wrongly, Obama’s choice of Sotomayor has been seen as a matter of payback for overwhelming Hispanic turnout for the Democrats last year. Likewise, Latino voters won’t forget the innuendo and patronizing that accompanied some of the senators’ inquiries — or the character assassinations Sotomayor had to endure from conservative media in the runup to the hearings.
Two of the most recent examples are two of the most outrageous: MSNBC analyst and GOP museum piece Pat Buchanan howled loudly this week for closer vetting of Sotomayor's LSAT scores (despite the fact that Sotomayor has been on the federal bench for years); last week talk-radio Doberman Rush Limbaugh likened her to a cleaning lady he pledged to buy vacuum cleaners for.
“An elephant never forgets,” the saying goes. Neither will the 45.5 million people comprising the nation’s fastest growing demographic bloc. Latinos looking ahead to 2010 will make judgments about how Sotomayor was treated this week. The GOP elephant would do well to remember that.
Image credits: Sotomayor: Still from C-SPAN.