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Why Have Republicans Been So Bumbling on Sotomayor?


Mark Schmitt has a smart post on the conservative response to Sonia Sotomayor. Where, he asks, is the fearsome conservative message machine in all this?

Remember how intimidating the political right used to seem? Liberals used the phrases “echo chamber” and the "message machine money matrix” to describe what to all appearances was a disciplined, vast, and efficient set of well-funded organizations and operatives promoting bad ideas and destroying good ideas and good people. But where is the great echo chamber now? The cracked-up conservative reaction to the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court seems to rest in the hands of some isolated cranks -- “presidents” of letterhead organizations whose staffs consist of themselves and someone who books their TV appearances, like Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network, Curt Levey of the Committee for Justice, or Manuel Miranda of the Third Branch Conference.

None of them, nor the better-known cranks like Newt Gingrich, seem to have gotten the memo. The memo that says, for example, you don't just jump out of the box and declare Sotomayor a “racist.” Or the memo that would have reminded Miranda that “limp-wristed” is probably not a good word to use to describe Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell if you want to persuade him to let you back into the inner circle. Or, more basically, the memo that would say, let's decide whether we have a case against this nominee, and what the case is, and then work together to build it.

Mark thinks this is a bit of a mystery. I take it as further evidence of the old political trope that no party is ever as good as it looks when it's on top or as bad as it looks when it's on bottom. There's a tendency, I think, to assess the situation and decide that the Democratic strategy has been really awesome while the Republican strategy has been really crummy. But how many ways could this have gone? Democrats have a popular president and 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans don't.

It reminds me of a comment someone made during the campaign: There are some fights a political party is simply not supposed to win. But there's not really a culture of graceful submission in Washington. You could have imagined Republicans deciding that this Supreme Court pick was a freebie for the expanded Democratic majority and the newly elected, extremely popular, president. Unless he chose someone manifestly unqualified, they were basically going to sit this one out. But he didn't, and they didn't, and the combination of Obama's popularity and Sotomayor's evident competence has required a much more radical, racially-charged line of attack than might otherwise be preferable. You can't mount a comeback atop field goals, after all.

But given all that, the appropriate way to grade the Republican response is on a curve. The question is not whether it's been effective, but whether it's been effective given their structural position. They were never going to win, but are they losing worse than we would've expected? I think the answer to that is probably yes, but I also think that sort of question might diminish the fearsomeness Democrats remember Republicans possessing in years past.

Sort of related: Political scientist Lee Sigleman assesses the research on whether Supreme Court Justices time their retirements for political reasons.

(Photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

By Ezra Klein  |  June 5, 2009; 4:14 PM ET
Categories:  Legal  
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Another problem is the binary nature of election results. For all the talk of the Republican glory days of 2000-2005, it was actually really, really close. A few things go differently in Florida in 2000, and suddenly the Democrats have a 12 year, possibly 16-year domination over the executive office. Karl Rove is no longer perceived as a genius. In 2004 and especially 2002, the environment was perfect for the crazy jingoistic rhetoric that conservatives are naturally good at. If 9/11 doesn’t happen, how would the 2002 and 2004 elections have turned out? Impossible to say, but it’s not unreasonable to assume the Democrats would have done better.

I think over the past 15 years or so, the right-wing crazies are great at being loud and driving the inside-the-beltway chatter, but I’m not sure if they were ever as brilliant with political messaging as it seemed.

The conservative glory days were probably 1972-1992. Demographically and because of the nature of our problems, their message worked. That messaging started diminishing in effectiveness from then on, but their dominance was only extended because of Clinton and bin Laden.

Posted by: NicholasWarino | June 5, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

"there's not really a culture of graceful submission in Washington. You could have imagined Republicans deciding that this Supreme Court pick was a freebie for the expanded Democratic majority and the newly elected, extremely popular, president."

I can see the Family Research Council direct mail piece now: "Harriet, the future of the Supreme Court is in your hands. Will you prayerfully consider sending us $250 to help us give the extremely popular President Obama and the Democrats in Washington a freebie on his radical Supreme Court nominee?"

Posted by: JEinATL | June 5, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

You would like to think they have been bumbling. Actually, yesterday's discovery that the "wise Latina" phrase had been used a number of times was helpful to republicans. There will be more to come. They should just do their research, and bring it forward, because no way did the administration take the time to vet Sotomayor as well as they should have. The repubs. definitely will not "lose worse" than they had to. Prediction: there will be pressure brought on the supreme court not to hand down a ruling overturning the Sotomayor panel's Ricci decision before her confirmation.

Posted by: truck1 | June 5, 2009 10:59 PM | Report abuse


Your comment shows how desperate the Republicans are. They said a poor choice of words meaning that what she said was inoffensive. You guys need to do better than this.

Posted by: micheline101 | June 5, 2009 11:17 PM | Report abuse

This wise womn comment is a tempest in a tea pot.

She has ruled aginst minorites alledging racial discrimination, in well over 80% of the cases she has reviewed. see www.scotusblog

Her rulings prove she is not biased in favor of minorities-regardless of the sad fact that talk radio fools choose to deliberately "misunderstand" her comments.

I am a white male and I could care less if she thinks women are smarter than men-although that's clearly not what she said. She said she thought her hard scrabble upbringing would mre ofttne than not help her make better decisions than white males who have been insulated or sheltered. (meaning white males "who have not had that life")

Thats not rascist at all; but try telling the halfwits who doiminate on the conservative blogs.

Harry Reid needs to put an end to this filbuster talk by invoking the Bill friust "Nuclear option" and simply changing the senate rules to eliminate the filbister-as Sen First did to intimidate the democrats into dropping their filibuster of Samuel Alito.

By Removing the filbuster from the senate rules the nation would be well served as well as future presidents of both parties.

Posted by: dcucich | June 6, 2009 12:00 AM | Report abuse

"I also think that sort of question might diminish the fearsomeness Democrats remember Republicans possessing in years past."

In other words, if the Dems wake up one morning and realize that the GOP's best b*tch slaps no longer have much sting to them, they're going to start being considerably less afraid of the GOP b*tch slaps, and the GOP's b*tch-slap approach to dominance fails.

Of course, the Dems' ability to beat down progressive initiatives all by themselves should never be discounted. After all, plenty of Dems are owned, to varying degrees, by big business.

Posted by: rt42 | June 6, 2009 10:02 PM | Report abuse

My impression is that the right wing message machine hasn't changed much. I think that it has become less effective because (1) the mainstream press is less willing to play along than it used to be, and (2) the experience of the Bush years has made the public more skeptical of Republican ideas.

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | June 7, 2009 12:10 AM | Report abuse

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