Why Sonia Sotomayer was a strong pick

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Obama has chosen Sonia Sotomayer to replace David Souter on the Supreme Court. It was, I think, an excellent pick.

First, the pick dovetails well with the President’s core governing philosophy, without giving in to his opponents. He could have gone much more to the left of Sotomayer — she is probably describable as a liberal judge, but she’s not extreme (she was, we should note, appointed to the District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H. W. Bush). In other words, the strong liberal wing of Obama’s support is moderately pleased, but in choosing Sotomayer he’s less likely to lose the middle ground. That’s important. He wants (as probably any first-term President would) to have his nominee confirmed by a large margin. He wants to appear unlike a partisan hack. Probably he’s done the right thing here.

Second — and interrelatedly — this is virtuoso politics. Electorally speaking, this could have a startling effect. Hispanics are the fastest-growing group in the US electorate. Bush won in 2000 and 2004 at least in part because, as a former governor of Texas, he had a good relationship with Hispanic American voters. The Hispanic vote swung strongly towards Obama this cycle. By being the first President to nominate a Hispanic (and of course a Hispanic woman), he will certainly encourage long-term Hispanic support for the Democrats. And because Sotomayer seems so well-qualified — at least in terms of her academic record and judicial experience — the Republicans will have a hard job fighting the nomination without seeming, to some at least, as anti-Hispanic. Obama has pushed them into a corner — the Republicans are in a spot where, at best, they will still likely lose much of the Hispanic vote for the next few election cycles.

So now begins a lengthy confirmation process which both sides must play extremely carefully. The nominee, and the White House, must do two things at all times. First, keep touting Sotomayer’s record and personal history, in precisely the way they did in yesterday’s announcement in the East Room, and in this release. The confirmation hearings in the Senate will be nationally televised, likely on the main networks, which means the nominee is as much talking to the public as to the Senate judiciary committee. And the public will fall for her personal story. It is rags-to-riches, it is success-against-the-odds, it’s precisely the sort of thing which will sell her as a person. Second, be honest. Don’t try to obfuscate, or to hide stuff. It will get found out if it’s there. I very much doubt there is any ‘dirt’ on Sotomayer, but any questions about her legal history should be answered honestly, or at least with the willingness, when asked about any controversial statements, to simply admit you were “wrong”. The public, I think, finds honesty refreshing.

The Republicans must absolutely not do what the likes of Limbaugh and Fox News, and even Huckabee and Romney, have done thus far. The first two examples there are clearly “nutcase kneejerk stupid moderate-alienating responses” (as I believe is the technical jargon). The second two — the responses from Huckabee and Romney — are problematic in much the same way: in their attempt to get out a message fast, they only look like shouty partisans who have not reflected, have not researched, have just come up with a bog-standard, ill-conceived talking point.

If Republicans really want to stop her (and I’m not sure that in the final calculation they will want to), they can only do it by a smart, legalistic, substantive approach concentrating on her past rulings and not her personality. They cannot make baseless statements devoid of measured reference to facts (at least not this soon after the announcement) without seeming like obvious partisan hacks, which will be suicidal against the first Hispanic nominee who is the pick of a very popular President.

Here’s the rub: I think she’ll be nominated, and handily, unless something altogether unexpected comes up.

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