Sotomayor and identity politics

The confirmation battle over Sonia Sotomayor is already heating up – but it’s the left that has been turning up the thermostat.

Before any major criticism of Sotomayor can be levied, her proponents are already playing defense – and some are categorically dismissing any naysayers as racists and/or sexistsThe National Organization for Women even announced their campaign to support Sotomayor hours before President Obama announced her nomination.  Democrats and their allies on the left are all but baiting Republicans to launch an all-out war.

While there is planty to criticize Sotomayor about – and those criticisms should be levied – it might actually be tactically smart to allow the confirmation to be affirmed with some window dressing opposition.  Unlike Harriet Miers, President Bush’s failed nominee, Sotomayor will not face opposition from her own party (barring some shocking revelation that likely would have precluded her nomination in the first place). Given the nature of the Senate, her nomination is almost guaranteed – though that fact is not the reason to give Sotomayor a pass.

Remember that Miers’s nomination by Bush was a replacement of Sandra Day O’Connor – and given the identity politics which often surround high court noninees, Bush felt compelled to nominate a woman.  Miers was a disaster, derided by both left and right as an intellectual lightwieght and, more importantly, criticized by conservatives for her lack of strict constructionist bona fides.

Sotomayor is certainly “qualified” to serve on the Supreme Court, but in nominating a Hispanic woman, Obama lessens the pressure on future presidents to look for certain attributes and instead allows them to focus on qualifications. The idea that certain constituencies should be highly visible is an idea that goes back as far as politics and has a long tradition in America – in fact, it’s the reason that a small state (Delaware) was set up to be the first to ratify the Constitution.  And each pick that cecks off those boxes (especially qualified picks like Sotomayor) calm the effect of identity politics that factor into these decisions.   For instance: if in four or eight years, a Republican president has to pick a nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that President will be under less pressure to appoint a woman.  Not that this hypothetical President couldn’t or wouldn’t appoint a woman, but it would be a lesser priority – and anything that strips identity politics from the processes of government is, on some level, a positive thing.

Of course, there’s another cynical reason that a Sotomayor approval might be politically helpful for Republicans.  One or two opinions that reflect the same thinking as her support for New Haven, Connecticut’s racial preferences in doling out (and taking away) promotions for firefighters may serve be an albatross for Obama’s reelection campaign.

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