Republicans in Congress and conservative activists spent last week attempting to paint President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a racist. Newt Gingrich, Tom Tancredo, and Rush Limbaugh all made the charge explicitly, while Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) appeared to come to the same conclusion using softer language. At different points, others attacked her temperament, her intellect, and misrepresented her record on the bench.
This week, however, prominent Republicans are attempting to distance themselves from last week’s smear tactics, with Politco reporting that they have embraced “toned down rhetoric on Sonia Sotomayor.” On the Sunday talk shows, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) urged Republicans to refrain from harshly-worded racism accusations. Sessions explained that “he would prefer fellow Republicans stop attacking Sotomayor over remarks about her background as a daughter of Puerto Rican parents.” Yesterday, Newt Gingrich wrote in Human Events that he should not have used the word “racist” to describe Sotomayor “as a person.”
But their new and supposedly more civil opposition strategy is no different than their old strategy. Republicans in Congress still appear to want the public perception of Sotomayor to be skewed by misinformation from the far right. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told CNN’s John King on Sunday that he had “better things to do” than to denounce conservatives who called Sotomayor “racist.” And now it seems his office is encouraging the spirit of this and similar arguments. As the Hill reports today, “Senate Republicans have kept their distance from conservative attacks on Sonia Sotomayor, but behind the scenes, they have encouraged activists to keep their crosshairs trained on the Supreme Court nominee”:
Lanier Swann, an aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told a private meeting of conservative activists Wednesday to keep up their pressure on Sotomayor.
“Swann told us she wanted to encourage all of us in our talking points and that we’re having traction among Republicans and unnerving Democrats,” said an attendee of Wednesday’s weekly meeting hosted by Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “The point was we should keep it up,” said the source. “She told us at this meeting to put our foot on the pedal.”
The Hill insists that McConnell’s office “did not encourage conservative critics to accuse Sotomayor of being a racist,” but given that a significant part of the right’s “talking points” on Sotomayor have been devoted to the charge of racism, it is hard to argue that urging conservative groups “keep it up” is anything but a tacit endorsement of the racism attacks. Indeed, the statements on which both Gingrich and Limbaugh based their charge of racism figure prominently in the right-wing Judicial Confirmation Network’s anti-Sotomayor website, AboutSoniaSotomayor.com and it is one of only two quotes of Sotomayor’s used in their anti-Sotomayor web ad.
A spokesman for Gingirch told Politico, “nothing has changed in the structure of his argument, he is just retracting the word racist.” Given that the “structure” of Gingrich’s argument is that Sotomayor would allow her race to impact her rulings on the bench, it seems that he wants to paint Sotomayor as a racist — he simply doesn’t want to be held accountable for doing so. And neither, it seems, do Republicans in Congress.