Sonio Sotomayor

Sotomayor and Our Changing Politics

First, as someone who has been encouraging our nation's leaders to better understand and adapt to the rapid growth of our Hispanic population, today is a very satisfying day.  Despite her incredible qualifications as a judge, Sonia Sotomayor was not a safe or easy pick.  I applaud President Obama, and the Senate, for having the courage and confidence for giving her a chance to serve on the highest court of the land.   When she was chosen a few months ago I released this statement:

"President Obama's historic pick of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the Supreme Court is an acknowledgment and affirmation of the great demographic changes taking place in America today. Driven by years of immigration, our nation is going through profound change. The percentage of people of color in the United States has tripled in just the past 45 years, and America is now on track become a majority-minority nation in the next 30-40 years. The movement of our nation from a majority white to a more racially complex society is perhaps the single greatest societal change taking place in our great nation today. And if the Supreme Court is to have the societal legitimacy required to do its work, its Justices must reflect and speak to the people of America of the 21st century. The pick of Judge Sotomayor, a highly qualified, twice-Senate confirmed Latina to serve as one of the nine judges overseeing our judicial system, will not only put a thoughtful and highly experienced judge on the Supreme Court, it will go a long way toward making the Supreme Court one that can truly represent the new people and new realities of 21st century America."

Second, I am not surprised that a large majority of the Republicans in the Senate voted against her.  As I discussed at our immigration event earlier this week (see this writeup on the right-leaning site CNS), racial intolerance has been at the very core of the Republican Party's political strategy and ideological argument since Lyndon Johnson, the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of the mid 1960s.  It became known as the Southern Strategy, and it was this most conscious exploitation of racial fear - Welfare Queens, Tax and Spend, Willie Horton, now criminals crossing the border - that perhaps more than anything else fuelled what we have called the Conservative Ascendancy in recent years.  

We also know today, however, that the conditions which created the opportunity for the success of the Southern Strategy have become a relic of 20th century politics.  But the current Congressional Republican leadership, all brought up and schooled in the successful eara of the Southern Strategy, knows no other politics. They are like an aging baseball pitcher whose fastball no longer pops, or a tv sitcom long past its prime.  They throw that pitch and it gets hit out of the park, that funny joke now falls flat, and these same racial conceits thrown around during the Sotomayor hearings bounce off an America whose people and attitudes towards race are very different from the America of the Southern Strategy era. 

Today's Republican Party is an almost entirely white party in an America which is now one-third non-white.  They are an aging party, holding on to a politics while once successful no longer works in the much more racially diverse America of the 21st century.  And this lack of diversity and long history of racial intolerance has taken its toll on the Republican brand with this fastest growing non-white part of the population, Hispanics.  In a tracking poll taken last week the favorable/unfavorable ratings for the Democratic Party with Hispanics was 53-31; the Republican Party 4 percent favorable, and 85 percent unfavorable.  The ratio for Congressional Democrats with Hispanics 46-34; for Congressional Republicans 5 percent favorable and 83 percent unfavorable.  4 and 5 percent! These are truly incredible numbers. 

As I said in my remarks on Tuesday I think that for the Republicans to get back in the game they will have to do more than just change their racial tune, elect a few more minorities, and begin this long process of modernizing their approach to race.  They will have to eventually acknowledge and repudiate their intolerant past, and their shameful exploitation of racial fear as a national political strategy. But today that day seems a long way off, and I have no doubt that the father of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, if still alive today, would be holding his head down, ashamed of what his once proud Party had become. 

For more on the issues in this essay see this backgrounder, On Judge Sotomayor and America's Changing Demography.

What Sotomayor Means for Immigration Reform

While it is still early in the effort to put Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, my sense is that if she does make it, the prospects for passing immigration reform this year will improve. 

Part of the reason why has to do with how the White House has introduced her to all of us. The emphasis on her hard-scrabble roots, the classic immigrant struggle, her father who never spoke English, her own incredible success, is itself a deeply powerful repudiation of the other less than flattering narratives about Hispanic immigrants we've seen in the media these past few years.  As I wrote the other day, her nomination - along with many other moments - Bill Richardson's candidacv, President Obama's own story - is one more step in the American people's coming to terms with, and largely accepting, our emerging, much more diverse racial and ethnic demographic construct of the early 21st century.  

The acceptance of these new demographic realities, driven by the vast waves of immigration in the United States in recent years, is at the very core of our ability to pass an immigration reform bill along the lines of what we passed in 2006. As we have reported to you many times, in poll after poll taken over the past four years, a strong majority of Americans, between 55 and 70 percent, are willing to allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working among us to stay, and build lives for themselves and their families here. For many Americans, this act of allowing the undocumenteds to stay is not just about fairness, and making sure taxpayers are not unduly burdened, but about accepting another huge traunch of Hispanic immigrants, accelerating even further the already dramatic demographic changes under way. 

For there should be no mistake about this - any civil society would have a hard time accepting the level of demographic change America is undergoing right now. That only 15-20 percent of the nation is up in arms about it shows once again, at its heart, what a good and generous nation America is.

Months of discussion of Sotomayor's inspiring story will be a daily and powerful antidote to Lou Dobbs and the other racial scapegoaters who have come to occupy the airwaves.  If she joins the court for the fall term, in September, it will be a powerful affirmation of our new direction, and an elegant table setter for a fall effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform before the end of the year. 

Kudos once again to President Obama. Few politicians in recent history have been as comfortable taking risks, of not taking the easy path, as he. And for that I am, once again, very proud of our President, that self described "mutt" we have leading us today, with grace, to a better place.

It Is Going To Be Hard for the GOP to Oppose Sotomayor

In several of the interviews I did today on the historic Sotomayor nomination, I got asked what it will it will do to the GOP if they oppose the first Hispanic Supreme Court pick.  Before giving my answer look at what Adam Nagourney just published in the online edition of the NYTimes:

But some Republicans warned that the image of Republicans throwing a roadblock before an historic nomination could prove politically devastating. Republicans saw a dip in Hispanic support in 2008, after eight years in which former President George W. Bush and his political aides had made a concerted effort to increase the Republican appeal to Hispanics, the nation’s fastest-growing group of voters.

“If Republicans make a big deal of opposing Sotomayor, we will be hurling ourselves off a cliff,” said Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser to Mr. Bush and a long-time advocate of expanding the party’s appeal. “Death will not be assured. But major injury will be.”

Matthew Dowd, another one-time adviser to Mr. Bush, said that in 2000, he calculated that Republicans needed to win 35 percent of Hispanics to beat Democrats. He said that given the steady increase in the number of Hispanic voters, he now believed Republicans needed to win a minimum of 40 percent to be competitive with Democrats.

As a result, he said, barring any revelation about Ms. Sotomayor’s background, Republicans could doom themselves to long-term minority status if they are perceived as preventing Ms. Sotomayor from becoming a judge. He argued that the party could not even be seen as threatening a filibuster.

“Because you’ll have a bunch of white males who lead the Judiciary Committee leading the charge taking on an Hispanic women and everybody from this day forward is going to know she’s totally qualified,” he said. “It’s a bad visual. It’s bad symbolism for the Republicans.”

“Republicans have to tread very lightly,” he said. “They can’t look they are going after her in any kind of personal or mean way. There’s no way they can even threaten a filibuster; I think a threat of that sort would be a problem, even if they didn’t do it.”

Pretty definitive statements from two smart guys.  And I basically agree.  After years of demonizing Hispanics as a matter of national policy, it will be very hard for today's GOP to oppose without mounting a very compelling case against her.  The cost to their party for this strategic demonization has been extraordinary.  If this nomination is not handled delicately, and respectfully, it could get much much worse.

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