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August, 6th 2009

On Sotomayor

– Liz Mair

Today, I did MSNBC together with Ari Melber from The Nation.  For those who missed it, I may post footage later, but the short version is, we were talking Sotomayor and what the GOP was thinking in voting against her (subtitle: will it further harm the party's standing with Hispanics).  My basic line was that anyone who thinks that Hispanics are casting a vote in 2010 or 2012 purely with the Sotomayor confirmation vote in mind (or even at the forefront of their minds ahead of other issues) is missing a trick: Setting aside that I have yet to see any evidence that judicial confirmation votes are something voters typically, substantially take into account when casting their votes, I also think it is a mistake to assume that Hispanic voters prioritize a vote on Judge Sotomayor's nomination ahead of a whole plethora of other issues. 

Some of those which I named on air today, and which I do believe will be of significant concern to Hispanic voters as they will to the vast majority of voters irrespective of their ethnic origin in 2010 based on what we see today, will be the economy and more specifically the deficit (where, as this polling from last week noted, Obama's approval rating is already not so hot).  In all probability another issue that will be of concern to Hispanics is immigration-- one where I do not personally believe the GOP has gone out of its way to distinguish itself.  However, I see that as different from the Sotomayor question.  Immigration is a policy issue whose resolution (or lack thereof) directly affects the Hispanic population in this country, including citizens, legal residents and illegal immigrants (we too often forget that many Hispanic US citizens have family members who are illegal immigrants) in very serious and tangible ways.  (For that matter, it is also of significant interest to many in the Irish-American population, and even those in my family, which includes one legal immigrant, and which is very, very favorable to loosening immigration restrictions).  The Sotomayor vote cast by most Republican Senators, on the other hand, was a statement that a judge should not ascend to the bench of the Supreme Court, because she was not sufficiently qualified, which, as everyone knows, is Republican for being "too liberal/activist" not "too Hispanic."  How do we know this?  If Obama had nominated any of the other names on his shortlist, it's hard to imagine that those casting a "no" vote today would not have done the same.  And the other names on his shortlist were not... Hispanic (though they were easily described as liberal and to some degree activist). 

In sum, I don't think that if Republicans had, en masse, voted for Sotomayor, Hispanic voters would be ready to jump back in the Republican camp, and I don't think the majority of Senate Republicans' vote against her is going to singlehandedly cause Hispanics to dismiss the GOP (well, except for those who are heavily susceptible to actual ethnic politicking as distinct from campaigning on public policy issues of deep interest to particular ethnic/racial groups, e.g., immigration).  And I think anyone who thinks that the Hispanic vote can be locked down for Democrats even if public concern over the President's handling of the economy, the size of the deficit and yes, immigration (let's not forget, Obama voted for poison pill legislation that helped consign comprehensive immigration reform legislation to the dustbin) is deluded.  Does it help?  No.  But that's not the same as saying it will hurt, or hurt badly: Remember, John McCain had a pretty good reputation with Hispanics until the GOP as a whole started tanking with them and guess what?  He voted against Sotomayor's elevation to the 2nd Circuit back in 1998.

To be clear, I probably would have voted for Judge Sotomayor today if I'd been in the Senate.  That's not because I agree with her (I have some issues with her legal decision-making, as does the Supreme Court, apparently, given her 3 for 7 reversal record).  It's because a) I think that even if she's more of an activist than I'd like and takes a more liberal approach to interpreting the law than I would, she is within the judicial mainstream (and certainly doesn't appear to be to the left of the justice she's replacing) and b) I think one area where a particular candidate winning a presidential election really does have consequences is with judges-- I think that as long as a judge is qualified, is within the judicial mainstream (even if on one side of it or the other), and isn't obviously insane, morally bankrupt or corrupt, the President gets his guy (or girl, as the case was today).  That's presumably the logic that led people like Patty Murray (though not Obama, it must be noted) to vote for Justice Roberts, and it's also what led Republicans to vote for justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

I also do think it's nice (for lack of a better word) that we have an Hispanic Supreme Court Justice now (or will, as of Saturday, anyway)-- though that's not why I would have voted for her, or indeed why I think those Republicans who did today did.  And as well they shouldn't have: Judicial confirmations are about putting well-qualified people, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, or other natural-born personal characteristics on the bench, not about ensuring that government organs are representative of the country's demographic makeup. 

It's the same deal with presidential elections for that matter, and that's an example I pointed to today to take issue with the assertion that people vote based on affiliations relevant to natural-born characteristics over which they personally have no control.  It was not the case that a majority of women supported Hillary Clinton for President last year (though many did).  It is also not the case that John McCain having put Sarah Palin on his ticket persuaded women to vote for him (it did not).  Issues, and politicians and political parties' stances on them, matter more than whether someone is the same gender as you, or the same ethnicity as you, or whether someone who is of a different gender or ethnicity voted against someone who is of the same gender or ethnicity as you when it was because of philosophy not because of skin tone or physical attributes.  (Though I do give some credit to the point made by Tamron Hall during the segment that African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Obama-- though African-Americans typically vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, which arguably reinforces my point that people vote on issues). 

I think Hispanics are smart enough to understand a) the point that judicial nominations are about putting well-qualified people on the bench and that members of political parties gauge "qualification" by reference to philosophy, b) that Republicans don't like judges who to them look liberal and activist, and c) that public policy issues like immigration, the deficit, taxes, spending and yes, health care, and accompanying Senate votes on those issues have real-life, personal implications for them in a way that a yea or nay on Sotomayor's confirmation simply does not.  That is, incidentally, the reason why Republicans have and may well continue having problems with the Hispanic electorate: We handled the immigration issue in a way that resulted in a grievous loss of trust among Hispanic voters (and frankly among other non-Hispanic voters I know who wanted something done to sort out immigration as it pertains to non-Hispanic immigrant groups, too, like, say, H1B visa applicants). 

In sum, if Hispanics vote against Republicans in 2010, that will more than likely be why.  Sotomayor will almost certainly have very little if anything to do with it. [intro]

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