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Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Sotomayor Episode of Political Theater

Obama and Sotomayor
Let's be clear about something that should be obvious -- Sonia Sotomayor will be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. Unless someone finds bodies buried in her petunia beds, this seems inevitable. Democrats are a mere one vote shy of being able to break a Republican filibuster alone and that filibuster has been all but ruled out. There are only two groups talking about a "battle" or "fight" over the confirmation; conservative activists and the media. Everyone else knows this "fight" is already lost.

For the media, the motive is simple; a big fight is more likely to get you to watch TV. The right likes to paint the media as leftist, while the left sees a media that serves powerful corporate interests. But the idea that the entire media has the same bias is crazy -- it's as diverse as the rest of the nation. There's only one kind of bias that we see shared by nearly every media source -- what I call ratings bias. I'm not the first person to notice it, others call it "sensationalism." A supposedly "liberal media" wasn't skeptical enough about the excuses made to invade Iraq because war is great for the news business -- so much for all that anti-Bush bias. During the '08 election campaign, the media insisted on reporting the contest between Obama and McCain as a "tight race," even as it became clear that McCain had no hope of winning. None of this was the result of any real bias other than a desire for ratings. News is a business.

And it turns out that this "big fight" narrative is also good business for conservative activist groups. A political action committee may be one of the few groups where success isn't always measured by success, but by the number of problems they identify. So everything Obama and Democrats do is the worst thing ever, no matter whether it's important or inconsequential. And a nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States of America isn't exactly inconsequential. When it comes to things worth fighting over, this actually is one. And the fact that there almost certainly won't be a big fight is no reason not to capitalize on the importance of the occasion.

And let's be clear about something else, every single person in the Republican party -- in elected office or not -- is a political activist. They can be constituent-oriented, issue-oriented, industry-oriented, or whatever, but they are political activists. That's the whole point of getting elected. The same is true for everyone in the Democratic party. If the promise of a confirmation battle is good for activists, it just follows that it's good for Republicans serving in office. They know this and, despite the fact that attacking Obama and Sotomayor is bad politics, it's good fundraising. They can't attack Sotomayor and they can't not attack Sotomayor. What a quandry.

Or it would be if it weren't for the fact that unelected activists have absolutely nothing to lose in attacking her and everything to gain.

The Hill:

In public, 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."

Problem solved.

Or nearly. Activists, both elected and unelected, have to walk a fine line. Republicans have to keep up the pretense of a fight without looking like they're fighting for the sake of fighting -- which they are. People milking the "big fight" narrative are those "whom want to keep up the charade for fundraising purposes, and some of whom seem to sincerely believe the outcome is in doubt," writes Steve Benen. "The tricky task for Senate Republicans, then, is putting on a good show for these folks."

So the trick is to use the word "concern," rather than "outrage" and to talk about a "debate," rather than a "battle." Benen offers an example from Republican anti-Sotomayor surrogate and political hack Manuel Miranda:

"We didn't call for a fight; we didn't say anything about bruising. What we said was, have a great debate... The letter we wrote, which is the nature of the story, is basically a call for Senate Republican leaders to have a great debate."

Miranda is calling for a filibuster. It's a doomed effort and everyone knows it. There's already a debate. It's been going on since Obama announced the nomination. A filibuster isn't debate, a filibuster is an action to stall debate. Miranda is putting his effort across as the exact opposite of what it really is. Where it's obstructionism for the sake of obstructionism, he wants you to see it as constructive and reasonable -- who doesn't want a "great debate?"

When all is said and done, this is just political theater. The unelected activists have a fundraising windfall and the elected activists score big points with the base. There doesn't actually have to be a fight, it just has to look like they tried to put up a fight and failed. Some of Sotomayor's most vocal critics may even vote for her.

If you're expecting a knock-down, drag-out brawl over the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor, then prepare to be disappointed. On the other hand, if you're expecting a big show with all the overwrought emotion and grandious bellowing of a Puccini opera, then settle in and grab the popcorn.

You're going to get exactly that. Just don't expect a big twist at the end.


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