“Let’s play grown-up.” When I was a child, that’s what we said when we ran out of things to do like playing potsie or throwing rocks in the vacant lot. You’d go in and take your father’s hat and your mother’s purse and walk around saying, “Would you like tea?” In retrospect we weren’t imitating our parents but parents on TV, who wore pearls and suits. But the point is we amused ourselves trying to be little adults.
And that’s what the GOP should do right now: play grown-up.
The Democrats in the White House have been doing it since January, operating with a certain decorum, a kind of assumption as to their natural stature. Obamaland is very different from the last Democratic administration, Bill Clinton’s. The cliché is true: White House staffs reflect their presidents. Mr. Clinton’s staff was human, colorful, messy, slightly mad. They had pent-up energy after 12 years of Republican rule, and they believed their own propaganda that Republicans were wicked. They were oafish: One dragooned a government helicopter to go play golf. President Obama’s staff is far less entertaining. They’re smooth, impeccable, sophisticated, like the boss. They don’t hate Republicans but think they’re missing a few chips (empathy, logic, How Things Really Work). It is true they don’t know what they don’t know, but what they do know (how to quietly seize and hold power, for instance—they now run the American auto industry), they know pretty well.
But back to Sonia Sotomayor, which is my subject.
She is of course a brilliant political pick—Hispanic when Republicans have trouble with Hispanics, a woman when they’ve had trouble with women. Her background (public housing, Newyorican, Catholic school, Princeton, prominence) is as moving as Clarence Thomas’s, and that is moving indeed. Politically she’s like a beautiful doll containing a canister of poison gas: Break her and you die.
The New York Post’s front page the day after her announcement said it all: “Suprema!” with a picture of the radiant nominee. New York is proud of her; I’m proud of our country and grateful at its insistence, in a time when some say the American dream is dead, that it most certainly is not. The dream is: You can come from any place or condition, any walk of life, and rise to the top, taking your people with you, in your heart and theirs. (Maybe that’s what they mean by empathy: Where you come from enters you, and you bring it with you as you rise. But if that’s what they mean, then we’re all empathetic. We’re the most fluid society in human history, but no one ever leaves their zip code in America, we all take it with us. It’s part of our pride. And it’s not bad, it’s good.
Some, and they are idiots, look at Judge Sotomayor and say: attack, attack, kill. A conservative activist told the New York Times, “We need to brand her.” Another told me a fight is needed to excite the base.
Excite the base? How about excite a moderate, or interest an independent? How about gain the attention of people who aren’t already on your side?
The base is plenty excited already, as you know if you’ve ever read a comment thread on a conservative blog. Comment-thread conservatives, like their mirror-image warriors on the left (“Worst person in the woooorrrlllddd!”) are perpetually agitated, permanently enraged. They don’t need to be revved, they’re already revved. Newt Gingrich twitters that Judge Sotomayor is a racist. Does anyone believe that? He should rest his dancing thumbs, stop trying to position himself as the choice and voice of the base in 2012, and think.
A few—very few—agitate to go at Judge Sotomayor as the Democrats went after Robert Bork in 1987. The abuse suffered by that good man is a still suppurating wound within the GOP, but it is also a wound for the Democrats, the worst kind, a self-inflicted one. They damaged our national political culture and lowered their own standing with their assault, and their victory left them looking not strong and uncompromising but mean and ferocious. And on some level they know it. Ask Ted Kennedy, if he had it to do over again, if he would repeat all his intemperate and unjust words about “Bob Bork’s America” and “back-alley abortions” and blacks turned away from lunch counters. He’d be a fool if he said yes. He damaged himself in that battle.
The choice for Republicans isn’t between “attack” and “roll over.” It’s broader than that, and more interesting. There’s a new and fresh opportunity here for Republicans in the Senate to be serious, and, in their seriousness, to be seen and understood in a new light.
Serious opposition to Judge Sotomayor is not only fair, it’s necessary: It’s your job to oppose if you oppose. But it should be serious, not merely partisan. Mr. Obama himself well knows he voted against John Roberts and Sam Alito only in essence because they were conservative. He was planning a presidential run and playing to a left-wing base. But that didn’t enhance his reputation, did it? Not with anyone who wasn’t part of his base.
Barring extraordinary revelations, Judge Sotomayor is going to be confirmed. She’s going to win. She does not appear to be as liberal or left-wing as others who could have been picked. She seems reminiscent of the justice she will replace, David Souter. She will likely come across in hearings as smart, spirited, a middle-aged woman who’s lived a life of grit, determination and American-dream proving.
Republicans can be liberated by the fact that they’re outnumbered and likely about to lose. They can step back, breathe in, and use the Sotomayor confirmation hearings to perform a public service: Find out what the future justice thinks and why she thinks it, explain what they think and why they think it, look at the two different philosophies, if that’s what they are. Don’t make it sparring, make it thinking.
Don’t grill and grandstand, summon and inform. Show the respect that expresses equality and the equality that is an expression of respect. Ask and listen, get the logic, explain where you think it wrong. Fill the airwaves with thoughtful exchanges.
Here are some areas: What is judicial activism? Is it sometimes more rightly called judicial presumption? Judge Sotomayor sided against the Connecticut firemen in the famous Ricci case—why? Was this empathy, or a very selective sympathy that resulted in the victimizing of human beings who were not members of a politically favored ethnic or racial group? What is affirmative action, when does it become quota making? How does she understand the Second Amendment? What did the Framers intend there? In what ways did her experience, upbringing and ethnicity contribute to her understanding of the law?
These are just a few fertile areas. There are more.
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The odd thing Republican elected officials forget is that they often have the better argument. So used are they to the defensive crouch that they find it difficult to stand tall, expand, tell, hear. They should have more faith in the philosophical assumptions of their party, which so often reflect the wisdom of experience, of tradition, of Founders more brilliant than we.
This might be a good time for them to rediscover their faith in the American people, in their ability to listen, weigh and think. That thinking may not always show up immediately in polls, but it adds up in time and has its own weight, its own force, and future.
Trust them. They’re grown-ups, even if they don’t always dress the part.