Going Strong on the Wrong Message

For many years, progressives have admired the strategic and rhetorical unity conservatives always manage to achieve whenever a new debate emerges. The fact that Republicans and their allies seem to speak with one voice -- making the same arguments, repeating the same talking points over and over -- gives them a leg up whenever the two sides are trying to persuade the public. Democrats and their allies, in contrast, are more often a cacophonous jumble of competing and contradictory messages, shooting off in all directions.

This imbalance doesn't completely determine the outcome of events -- constantly repeating "personal accounts you control" wasn't going to make the American people agree to privatize Social Security, for instance. But it certainly works to the right's advantage. Or at least it does so long as the right's message isn't actively undermining its political goals. Which was exactly what we saw last week, making the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor a unique political moment. The Republicans were, as usual, robotically on message. And they're going to regret it for a long time to come.

Let's compare those hearings to what happened when George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court in 2005. The opposition -- a collection of Democrats and progressive organizations -- made an attempt to implement a coordinated strategy. But though they had been preparing for Bush to get a Supreme Court nominee for years, they couldn't seem to decide on exactly how to attack Alito. Was he a far-right conservative, Robert Bork without the goatee? Was he a threat to reproductive rights? No one knew what to say. One of the attacks they came up with was that as an appellate judge Alito had neglected to recuse himself from a case involving the Vanguard Group, in which he held investments. Shockingly, that did not ignite fires of outrage across the land.

In the end, progressives got nothing out of the Alito nomination or that of John Roberts. They didn't stop the confirmations, and they didn't articulate for the public what the real danger of that kind of jurisprudence is. And both nominees turned out to be as reactionary as anyone had feared.

Republicans did not face this problem when it came to Sotomayor. They accepted from the outset that they were not going to stop her ascension to the Court. Instead, they wanted to create a teachable moment. Unlike the Democrats four years prior, the Republicans knew exactly how they wanted to attack Obama's choice, and everyone stuck to the script. It was about race, from beginning to end.

Again and again in the last few years, the Republican Party has been like an addict trying to kick the habit of the politics of racial animus, but it keeps going back for one more hit. So when Sotomayor's nomination was announced, Hispanics were watching carefully. And what did they see? Immediately, they saw Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich calling her a racist. They saw the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic equivalent of the NAACP or the Anti-Defamation League, compared to the Ku Klux Klan by Tom Tancredo, a former Republican member of Congress. They saw Pat Buchanan, as always nothing if not straightforward, write that what the Republican Party needs is to cater more to white voters, "who pay the price of affirmative action when their sons and daughters are pushed aside to make room for the Sonia Sotomayors."

And any Hispanics who were still wondering whether the GOP is interested in their votes got a week-long demonstration of how the party handles a Hispanic Supreme Court nominee. If they watched the hearings, the first thing they got was a good long look at the Republicans' chief inquisitor, Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of Alabama.

Sessions' own nomination to a federal judgeship in 1986 was scuttled when witnesses at his confirmation hearing testified that Sessions once called a white attorney a "disgrace to his race" for taking voting-rights cases and said the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union "forced civil rights down the throats of people." In his own defense, Sessions said he was just joking when several colleagues heard him say he "used to think [the Ku Klux Klan was] OK" until he learned that some of them were "pot smokers." Even if most Hispanics watching the hearing didn't know Sessions' colorful history, more than a few probably assumed that the old white guy with the drawl as thick as molasses lecturing Sotomayor about putting aside biases wasn't too favorably inclined toward folks like them.

Next, they heard one Republican after another make references to some Hispanic person they held in high esteem. In the opening statements, John Kyl of Arizona brought up Judge Richard Paez, who had made a statement he contrasted with one of Sotomayor's. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina noted that if it had been the Republicans' choice, "We would have picked Miguel Estrada" (Estrada's nomination by George W. Bush to the Court of Appeals was blocked by Democrats). In discussing one case, Sessions told Sotomayor, "Had you voted with [Judge Jose] Cabranes, himself of Puerto Rican ancestry -- had you voted with him, you could have changed that case." Although the intention in all these cases is to say, "Look, I'm no racist," in practice it has just the opposite effect. This is a familiar pattern that members of minority groups recognize well (Political satirist Stephen Colbert lampooned it when he went on a search for someone to be his "new black friend").

And then there were the two major themes of the hearings. Again and again, long after any new insight could be sucked from the topics, we heard Republicans come back to lines from Sotomayor's speeches (the "wise Latina") and the now-famous Ricci case, in which the city of New Haven threw out a firefighter promotion test when African Americans scored high enough to pass. Republicans even brought Frank Ricci himself to testify, not because he has some particular insight into scope of Sotomayor's jurisprudence but because he has for some become the embodiment of white male grievance.

Perhaps Ricci did deserve that promotion. But what every one of the 68 percent of Americans who are not both white and male saw, once again, was the deep well of outrage at discrimination that Republicans seem only to summon when it's a white guy who got the short end of the stick.

The fact of the matter is that a party that builds its foundation on the racial grievances of white men is doomed to defeat after defeat. Each day, the nation pulls farther and farther away from the America those men, and their representatives in Congress, pine for so deeply. It is gone, and it will not return.

Barack Obama certainly did himself a favor with Hispanic voters by picking Sotomayor, but the real political effect of this nomination came from the wound so enthusiastically self-inflicted by the GOP. It sent a message to the nation's fastest-growing minority group (and lots of other people as well), and it came through loud and clear. If only it had managed a little bumbling incoherence, that wound might not have been so deep.

You may also like