The Sotomayor Attacks: 2012 Republicans Throw Red Meat to a Shrinking Base

romney collage The Sotomayor Attacks: 2012 Republicans Throw Red Meat to a Shrinking Base

On Tuesday, the nation’s first black president announced that he would like to place the first-ever Hispanic (and only the third-ever woman) on the Supreme Court. By Wednesday, virtually the entire Republican establishment—including the party’s most likely 2012 presidential candidates—had united in denouncing the move.

A “Latina woman racist,” is how Newt Gingrich described Sonia Sotomayor. “Troubling,” was Mitt Romney’s summation. And, of course, there was Mike Huckabee’s cringe-worthy attack on “Maria” Sotomayor and her “far left” philosophy.

All three of these men have ample political reason to act this way: They each want to secure the G.O.P. nod in ’12 and they each recognize how shrunken and radicalized the party’s base has become after the last two elections. With Rush Limbaugh declaring opposition to Sotomayor (“a reverse racist”) a litmus test for conservatives, there’s no room for intraparty dissent.

But while Romney and Gingrich may feel obliged to join the pile-on (2012 will probably be the last year either man can viably seek the presidency, so why not go for broke?), the Republican Party has a vastly different, and broader, imperative: reversing its poisonous image as a narrow-minded and almost all-white collection of cultural reactionaries. If the G.O.P. fails to do this, its nominations will be worthless, in 2012 and well beyond.

The Sotomayor nomination actually offers Republicans a chance to begin the very slow and very gradual image-makeover process.

Since David Souter’s retirement plans became public, the reality has been that Obama would select a liberal-leaning replacement and that the overwhelmingly Democratic Senate would ensure that nominee’s confirmation—no matter what the Republicans said or did. And, on the off chance that the nominee was forced to withdraw (i.e., another Harriet Meyers or Douglas Ginsburg), Obama would simply pick another left-leaning judge or lawyer. In other words, there has never been a way for Republicans to prevent Souter from being replaced by another liberal.

So the G.O.P.’s reaction to Sotomayor’s selection is more symbolic than anything else. But rather than simply admitting that she’s qualified (and, actually, not nearly as liberal a choice as Obama could have made) and saluting the historic nature of her selection—a move that might actually impress the voters who have fled the G.O.P. these past few years—the party’s most prominent voices are instead stoking the fears of white male conservatives about “reverse racism.”

This will only exacerbate what for the G.O.P. has been a devastating out-migration trend. Not only is it a posture that will hurt the party’s efforts to attract Hispanic voters, but it also reinforces the decision of the culturally liberal white voters who used to vote Republican for economic reasons but who have defected in recent years. And because Sotomayor (or a Sotomayor-like candidate) is a lock for confirmation, Republicans are doing this for nothing.

Interestingly, Republicans were far more pragmatic the last time a liberal woman was chosen for the Supreme Court. That was in 1993, when Bill Clinton chose Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who admitted at her confirmation hearings that she personally supported abortion rights and gay rights and that she had backed the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. The vote on Ginsburg’s confirmation was 96 to 3. Every Republican in the chamber voted for her except for Jesse Helms, Don Nickels and Bob Smith.

“By any measure, she is qualified to be the Supreme Court’s ninth member,” Bob Dole, then the Senate’s Republican leader, said. At the time, Dole was preparing to seek the 1996 G.O.P. presidential nod, and yet he (and the other Republican senators who had ’96 aspirations, like Phil Gramm, Richard Lugar and Arlen Specter) felt none of the pressure that Romney, Gingrich and Huckabee now feel to oppose Obama’s pick.

The Ginsburg example is particularly apt because Republicans in ’93 and 1994 were in much the same position that the party is now in—locked out of the White House and facing formidable Democratic majorities in both Congressional chambers.

But unlike today’s G.O.P., those Republicans were far more skilled at picking their spots. They did show uniform opposition to the pork-riddled stimulus package Bill Clinton introduced in 1993 (priced at a mere $19 billion—about $768 billion less than Obama’s) and also voted lock-step against Clinton’s first budget, which contained a hugely unpopular (at the time) tax hike. But they knew when to back off, too. Ginsburg’s choice is a good example. So was the North American Free Trade Agreement, which cleared Congress in November 1993 with vital Republican support.

Republicans in ’93 and ’94 worked to avoid the “party of no” label and didn’t demand reflexive and hyperbolic opposition to every move Clinton made. It helped them, of course, that Clinton was a clumsy and mistake-prone president in ’93 and ’94—a sharp contrast to Obama, who has retained broad popularity throughout his first few months on the job. But, for the most part, they carried themselves in a way that wouldn’t alienate the middle—which put the party in perfect position to capitalize on Clinton’s deep unpopularity in the ’94 midterms.

That is not where the G.O.P. is today, though. As the reaction to Sotomayor shows, the Republican Party of 2009 is more interested in preaching to an ever-shrinking choir than reaching out to the millions of voters it has alienated this decade.