Friday, July 17, 2009

Send in the Clowns: The GOP, the Sotomayor Hearings, and Political Suicide

Last year, I decided that Maureen Dowd had lost her verve. After a litany of weekly essays knifing Hillary Clinton and worshipping Barack Obama, she appeared robotic and unoriginal. But, Dowd's latest essay shows some of her old sparkle. In classic Dowd style, Dowd goes after the Republican Senators who have questioned Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's impartiality, temperament, and honesty. Dowd praises Sotomayor for maintaining her cool in the face of hostility, concluding that: "A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not know that a gaggle of white Republican men afraid of extinction are out to trip her up." Regrettably, I agree.

Prior to the Sotomayor nomination, I published many essays on this blog that defend Republicans from liberal attacks. For example, I defended Michael Steele (here, here, here, and here), Sarah Palin (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), Rush Limbaugh (here and here), and John McCain (here, here, here, and here) from unfair criticism. I also criticized "the liberal media," liberals and Democrats, including President Obama, when other progressives refused to do so (too many links to list). Although I continue to criticize liberals, my search for material to defend the GOP has been largely unsuccessful since the Sotomayor nomination.

The GOP's False and Offensive Anti-Sotomayor Narrative
Despite her excellent academic and professional credentials, many Republicans have decided that she is an intellectual lightweight, a partial judge, a bigot, and an ideologue. Given her nearly 20 years of judging, if these allegations were true, then the hundreds of opinions she has written would back up the claims. Nothing in Sotomayor's record as a judge, however, legitimates the Republicans' allegations.

Lacking any credible proof that Sotomayor is unqualified to sit on the Supreme Court, Republicans have resorted to distortion. They have extracted one case (Ricci) from her long legal career, and despite the fact that several other judges reached the same conclusion as Sotomayor, Republicans have pointed to her position in the case to argue that she is biased against white men.

Republicans have also extracted one sentence from one speech that Sotomayor delivered, distorted its meaning, and have attempted to define Sotomayor with their own misrepresentation of her words. Clearly operating under White House directions, Sotomayor has (wisely) said that she should have chosen other words to convey her message. She even apologized for any pain her words caused (but conservatives oppose "victimology"). Nevertheless, the spewing continues.

Embracing Principles or Committing Political Suicide?
Sotomayor will sit on the Supreme Court. All of the Democrats and even some of the Republicans will vote to confirm her. Meanwhile, the Republican Party will likely take a political hit from the hearings -- especially among blacks and Latinos, whose support for the GOP is already in the toilet.

Ironically, Republican Senators like Jeff Sessions are leading the attacks against Sotomayor. President Reagan nominated Sessions for a federal district court judgeship, but his nomination never made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Many committee members were not amused by some of Sessions's prior comments on race, which appear to praise the Ku Klux Klan and which describe the NAACP and ACLU as "un-American." Send in the clowns.

One could argue that the GOP is valiantly embracing its principles in the face of wide opposition and deep political risks. But that argument requires a showing that principles are actually dictating the behavior of Republicans. On that point, the record is weak. Portraying a highly successful woman of color with a long and distinguished judicial record as a dumb shrill racist partisan is not only factually inaccurate, but it amounts to political suicide for a party that needs to capture the attention of women, moderates, and persons of color. Rather than adhering to principles, it seems that the GOP is on a suicide mission. For those of us who favor a multi-party system, this is bad news.


liberal dissent said...

I have been very impressed with Sotomayor's composure throughout. I still think the "better decision" line was indefensible, and I am glad she didn't try to defend it, but instead said it was wrong.

It is also fascinating to watch Sessions' self-destructive, racist tirades.

Kansas City said...

I have not watched a great deal of the hearing, but in the parts I watched Sotomayer did not seem particularly bright.

The following is an interesting and accurate take on the politics which the Democrats, with their liberal MSM supporters, very successfully play in terms of killing conserative Latino nominee Estrada and elevating liberal Lation Sotomayor:

"In 2001, Estrada was vilified by liberals in the Senate (and those in the Hispanic Bar Association, which refused to endorse him) because of his conservative views on a wide range of issues.

They knew Estrada would have been on the express train to the Supreme Court if he made it to the appellate bench. And they absolutely, categorically refused to release their stranglehold on the "noble immigrant" stereotype - because Estrada was a conservative, an in-your-face challenge to the conventional wisdom that immigrants in general (and Latinos in particular) are liberal Democrats.

So the Great American Story of a Honduran who came to the U.S. at age 17 speaking no English, but who ended up on Harvard's law review was reduced to a historical asterisk, while the story of a girl born to parents who came to the Bronx from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, moves Sen. Charles Schumer to tears and his liberal colleagues to simpering praise.

Sotomayor will be confirmed.

Conservatives simply don't have the votes to block her. That's expected. One of the prizes at stake in the last election was the right to appoint the next Supreme Court nominee. To the winner goes the judicial spoils. And yes, she has the academic pedigree. She also has more judicial experience than any of the sitting justices had before they were appointed.

She's nominally qualified, even though her performance at the hearings this week was less than impressive. The GOP got her to disavow her "wise Latina" comment, she tiptoed around the empathy controversy, and she avoided giving anything but marshmallow answers on abortion, the death penalty and other hot-button topics. The wise Latina became the cautious Latina.

But apparently, for President Obama and his party, the most important thing is that she is, in fact, Latina.

Pity that the liberals didn't feel the same about Miguel "the smart Latino" Estrada.

That's why the Democrats should drop the "isn't-it-wonderful-that-a-Hispanic-is-going-to-be-on-the-court?" mantra. To them, there's only one legitimate type of diversity: Your ethnicity, not how you think.

Janice Rogers Brown saw it. This African-American daughter of a sharecropper who made it to the California Supreme Court was almost denied her rightful place on the D.C. court of appeals - the same spot denied Estrada - because she had the audacity to defy the liberal orthodoxy. She was pro-life. Pro-business. Pro-government. Fortunately, the Dems didn't have the numbers to block her in 2005.

And don't forget Clarence Thomas, the whipping boy of "enlightened" legal scholars ever since his elevation to the high court almost two decades ago. Thomas has one of the finest, most nuanced minds on the court. He's also had the courage to attack affirmative action, recognizing its constitutional dubiousness and the fact that it harms minorities, as well as people like . . . white firefighters.

For his honesty, he's been labeled an Uncle Tom. Because any minority who criticizes affirmative action must be trapped in a plantation mentality, right?

You can be sure that Sotomayor won't attract that type of criticism. She's the "right" kind, one who makes liberals feel good about their "progressive" politics and their tolerance."

Kansas City said...

Christine Flowers in the Philadelphia paper is the author of my quote.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

KC: I will accept your portrayal of the hearings solely for the sake of argument. Now -- how exactly does having the political savvy to dance with hostile Senators using a script written by the White House translate into intelligence -- or, more importantly, to being a good judge?

This argument, which has surfaced among conservatives, is completely bankrupt. At most it says that Sotomayor is not a good politician. Well, perhaps that's why she is not running for Congress!

PS: The only Supreme Court nominees in recent memory who have received the "not so bright" label are Thomas and Sotomayor. You did not have to go to Estrada. Racism exists among liberals and conservatives. This is not something that you need to argue to me.

Keith Roberts said...

I appreciate your normally fair-minded commentary, but on the Sotomayor hearings I think you missed an important angle: namely, the brilliant job of "framing" that the Republicans did. Since Sotomayor's confirmation was a foregone conclusion, the Republicans took the hearings as a teachable moment, explaining to viewers and the press that the job of the judge, even the Supreme Court judge, was simply to call balls and strikes. Such a view is of course a grotesque fabrication, but it accomplishes several important Republican goals: (1) it implicitly characterizes the Roberts-Scalia-Alito-Thomas approach as neutral, rather than the political agenda that it truly is, (2) it endorses the characterization of any other judicial approach as illegitimate activism, and (3) it so degrades the judicial process as to make the selection of judges seem unimportant, thereby implicitly endorsing as harmless such scandals as the buying of elections by corporations and ideologues. The Democrats allowed this outrageous framing to happen with no more objection than they did when the Swiftboaters slandered Kerry.

Mark G said...

Not that my opinion matters much, but I figure that (1) only a small percentage of the population has the high intelligence to graduate with top grades from an elite college and law school; (2) of that small group, only a small percentage has the intelligence and other gifts to serve adequately as one of the few hundred Circuit Court judges; thus, (3) Judge Sotomayor, although undeniably a gifted, highly intelligent person, is as far as we can tell no better qualified to sit on the Supreme Court than dozens of other Democratic appointees to the Circuit Courts (never mind possible candidates who are not judges). Ginsburg, Breyer and Scalia are wicked smart. Do you really think Sotomayor has shown herself to be their equal?

James H said...

I guess I must be watching an dlistening to two different sets of hearing. SHe made some comments and the GOP(as the Loyal Oppostion) questioned her on it. I actually think her answers put many of our minds at ease.

Also lets be honest here. Republicans and conservatives are not fearing a "Latino"mentality. THey are fearing a mentality and poltical thinking that so many people say that Latinos have to have. We have been through this with Clarence Thomas for years. You know he is really not a "black justice" or so it goes as I hear

If there is anything offensive it is the fact that news media seems to think all Latinos are alike.

I hope we can be at a place where strong questioning of a Latino is not deemed offensive.

I noted this in the hearing as many opf the Pro-Witness for her seemed to imply questioning her role in the Puerto Rico Cicil Rights group was imporoper and how dare they. What was not noted was the questions that were being asked about mostly dealt with the issue of abortion. But one would not know that

Lindsey Graham that has taken many poltical hits for Hispanic and Latino causes was one of the best questioners and asked the toughest questions. If he deemed to be a "Clown" or done something wrong in Latino eyes then boy we ae in bad shape

liberal dissent said...

Mark G: Law isn't quantum mechanics; there aren't really any issues that come up before the Supreme Court that a reasonably experienced, intelligent (but not necessarily genius level) attorney couldn't understand. Keep in mind Chief Justice Warren Burger went to what even today is considered a third-tier school, but I think few people would characterize him as in over his head.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Keith Roberts: Even the most generous reading of the last few days does not legitimate your post.

Mark G: Your post presents a rather twisted choice. First you concede that Sotomayor is "gifted" "highly intelligent" and "no better qualified" than other court contenders. Then you list 3 judges you consider the most brilliant on the Court and ask if Sotomayor is their equal. Even if I accept your list of the most brilliant justices -- which I don't -- being equal to THE BEST people on the court has never been a quality people have sought in a justice. For example, even after Miers, I do not recall people asking whether Alito was as brilliant as Ginsburg, Breyer or Scalia. If anything, a few people called him Scalia-lite. But the stereotype did not stick with him.

For all of the awe that people exhibit regarding Scalia, I find that his opinions are often inconsistent and wildly partisan. This might be "wicked," but it is not necessarily intelligent.

Finally, I think the current court contains able intellectuals, but I would not rank any of them among the very top of the legal minds in this country (at present or historically). They are immensely intelligent, but so are many other lawyers. Sotomayor certainly ranks among the nine in my opinion.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

James H: The Republicans did not act like a "loyal opposition." They behaved like pariah in many instances. I certainly believe that any nominee must face questions, but the arguments must bear some connection to available evidence. The concerted effort to portray Sotomayor as biased is a charge that the very first black judges faced when they were appointed to the bench. It is absolutely shameful that in the name of "loyal opposition" the Republicans decided to dust off the old manual on race.

liberal dissent said...

Scalia's reputation for brilliance is probably more a result of his overpowering self-assuredness rather than the quality of his opinions.

Mista Jaycee said...

I disagree with Judge Sotomayors rulings in a few cases but she has the chops and I look forward to seeing her on the bench.

Kansas City said...

Judging intelligence from observations of testimony is subjective (and partisan), but not that hard. She is less bright than other justices, but so what? Any Obama appointee will vote the liberal side every time, as will Sotomayor.

As to judging her intelligence, we have the added evidence that she did not score well on intelligence tests, which you may like or not, but they do judge intelligence.

Unapologetic Feminist said...

Justice isn't colorblind. A recent study showed that latino, male youths were convicted twice as much as white male youths who had committed similar crimes. That is racism, my friends. The color and gender of the power-players affect their decision-making. If it doesn't, how do you explain the continual discrepancy between the treatment of whites and non-whites, and males and females in our country. If there had been more women on the Supreme Court, Lily Ledbetter would have won her case.

Unapologetic Feminist said...

Kansas City,

How did you get Sotomayor's IQ test scores? If you would do a little research into IQ test scores, the most recent research in the area shows that there is not a strong correlation between IQ scores and intellectual achievement (Nobel Prize in science, chess champion, etc.) In fact, the greatest scientists have often had simply above-average IQ, but not stellar IQs. Rather, the most important predictors of success were access to good mentors and plain, hard work. Although Sotomayor, as a Latina, had virtually not mentors, she did work her ass off. Also, I am not aware of any IQ tests that she took. If you are referring to her SAT scores- well- give me a break- there is virtually NO correlation between SAT scores and anything relevant in life at all. In fact, as a Ph.D. scientist, I can tell you that the people who scored the best on the GRE did the worst in grad school. These tests aren't predictive or useful. I think you have a bad case of gender bias my friend, plain and simple.

Decidere said...

Some of my comments on my latest post at TPM segue here: Buchanan and Sotomayor. We've accepted conservative framing on so many things, like what affirmative action is, and whether it's needed, what an "activist judge" is and whether there's justification. The Conservatives are contradictory, saying a Justice should just punch the clock and literally interpret everything by the Constitution and precedent, but then the Justice should be brilliant, best of the best (well, at least recently). Can't a Judicial Monkey do better? Isn't there a Microsoft Word or Google plug-in that will search precedents and insert the right ones? Ricci v. New Haven was the perfect analogy for them - forget life experience, perceptiveness, broadness of scope - cram for those tests at Harvard, memorize the most facts to get the best grades, and graduate to the Supreme Court!!! I sympathize with Ricci - he put out his all for what was announced as the standard. But the black firefighters didn't get to choose this crazy standard. There are fair standards out there used by many fire departments. The New Haven fire department realized too late that they'd screwed up, kind of like Republicans coming to grips with the Bush years. Just that the fire department is more apologetic about their screwup. The Republicans are now blaming their problems on diversity, and on bringing too much common sense to the office. I can see where it's a new, scary concept to them.

Decidere said...

A couple other things I mention, that I don't hear a lot. One is that you can approach the Supreme Court as a team, and you're looking for someone who can work with that team the best to get results. (Or you can decide you need a devil's advocate). It's not just litmus test and ideological slant, and there are no specific rules who is qualified to serve.

The second is that perhaps Sotomayor was unartful in her "wise latina" remark, but then people beat up on Hillary for being only a Chicago girl while Obama had the world perspective of his time in Indonesia and from his Kenyan father. I have problems that we have to run away from the idea that different perspectives on the Supreme Court bring useful balance, and that a Latino and female perspective won't enhance it. In terms of what judges see, I'd say that "wise latina" may help because we tend to get the white male perspective on TV, in newspapers, in court precedents, but there are other points of view. (Of course Scalia can revel in his Italianess and that's A-OK).

Now, Hillary is female and pretty wise herself, so understands something about career discrimination in the legal profession and political expectations, and can likely extend that to partially understand some racial grievances better especially with her world travels. (Actually I somewhat equate Sotomayor's "wise latina" with Hillary's "well I'm really comfortable in the kitchen" - some tongue in cheek denoting toughness in checking and noting traditional sexism/racism). Whether 4 years abroad as a kid and being born to a Kenyan father you never know translates to being able to deal with the rest of the world better is questionable, but combined with his time in Hawaii, LA, New York and Illinois (including yuppieville, black projects and Springfield), he has a pretty good cross-section of American life. But Republicans seem intent on the one-dimensial student of law.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Unapologetic Feminist: Thanks for pointing out that ideology and identity actually track one another. A "wise slave" would have reached a different ruling in Dred Scott (than a wise nonslave). Wise women on the Court would not have waited until the 1970s to conclude the sex-based discrimination violated the Constitution. GLBT justices would probably not have decided Bowers v Hardwick the same way. The notion that identity is irrelevant is a fiction. White male heterosexuals have ruled in ways that deprive GLBT people, women and persons of colors of rights that they would never sacrifice themselves.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

KC - You are right. Your conclusion about Sotomayor's intelligence is highly partisan. The notion that a standardized test absolutely measures intelligence shows a lack of intelligence -- given the availability of prep classes that correspond with class. The fact that Sotomayor outperformed the students who supposedly did better on the SAT at Princeton disproves your flawed analysis.

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