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Still Playing the Race Card

By Dan Froomkin
12:32 PM ET, 06/ 1/2009

Judge Sonia Sotomayor's breakthrough nomination to the Supreme Court seems nearly unstoppable at this point. John Harwood writes in the New York Times that: "Notwithstanding fierce criticism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, there is scant evidence of solid opposition from Republican senators. Indeed, strategists on both sides say that one-third or more of the 40 Senate Republicans may vote to confirm her."

But that's not how it looked on the Sunday talk shows. Instead of trying to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party and leave the race-based arguments against Sotomayor to the lunatic fringe, some key Republican senators seemed to endorse those arguments, if in tamer terms.

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times:

Since the introduction last week of Sonia Sotomayor, Republican senators wary of attacking the first Latino Supreme Court nominee have lashed out at conservatives in their party who branded the would-be justice a racist and have even predicted a smooth confirmation.

But several of those same GOP senators said Sunday that they would now make race a focus of the Sotomayor nomination fight -- and they were far less eager to criticize conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich for their racially tinged critiques.

Fanning out across network television talk shows, the senators in essence pledged to ask a fundamental question: Can a woman who says her views are shaped by her Puerto Rican heritage and humble beginnings make fair decisions when it comes to all races and social classes?...

[T]he GOP senators' new tone underscored a sense in the party that Sotomayor's history of speaking about her Puerto Rican heritage had emerged as a surprisingly effective line of attack -- particularly as President Obama and other Democrats try to shore up their support among working-class white voters.

George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote in an important essay on Dailykos.com that conservative leaders are trying to recast the Sotomayor nomination -- and, indeed, Obama's wider devotion to empathy -- as a giveaway to minorities and a red shirt to "conservative populists."

"The real target here goes beyond Sotomayor," Lakoff wrote. "In the last election, conservative populists moved toward Obama. Conservative populists are working people, mostly white men, who have conservative views of the family, of masculinity, and of the military, and who have bought into the idea of the 'liberal elite' as looking down on them. Right now, they are hurting economically, losing their jobs and their homes." The attack on Sotomayor "is an attempt to revive their fears of affirmative action, fears of their jobs — and their pride — being taken by minorities and women."

Jeffrey Toobin, writing in the New Yorker, reminds us of the historical stakes:

As with earlier breakthrough nominations, Obama's selection of Sotomayor has stirred some old-fashioned ugliness, and in that alone it serves as a reminder of the value of a diverse bench and society. Some anonymous portrayals of the Judge offered the kind of patronizing critiques ('not that smart') that often greet outsiders at white-male preserves. Women who have integrated such bastions will be familiar, too, with the descriptions of her temperament ('domineering'), which are of a variety that tend to reveal more about the insecurity of male holdovers than about the comportment of female pioneers. The pernicious implication of such views is that white males, who constitute a hundred and six of the hundred and ten individuals who have served on the Court, made it on merit, and that Sotomayor is somehow less deserving...

As Barack Obama knows better than most, it is a sign of a mature and healthy society when the best of formerly excluded groups have the opportunity to earn their way to the top.

Meanwhile, Dan Eggen and Paul Kane wrote in Saturday's Washington Post that Obama said Sotomayor regrets her choice of words in a 2001 speech in which she said a "wise Latina" judge would often make better decisions than a white male.

But Obama, in his first public remarks on the controversy, also condemned "all this nonsense that is being spewed out" by critics who have accused Sotomayor of being a racist and have likened her to a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I'm sure she would have restated it," Obama said of Sotomayor's remarks, in an interview with NBC News that will air next week. "But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what's clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through.

"That will make her a good judge," he added.

The comments underscored a shift in the White House's approach to Sotomayor's controversial speech, which has become a flashpoint for many conservatives opposed to her nomination.

Although by Saturday morning's weekly address, Obama was back to decrying how "some in Washington who are attempting to draw old battle lines and playing the usual political games, pulling a few comments out of context to paint a distorted picture of Judge Sotomayor's record."

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