Sotomayor Spark Lights Intra-GOP Conflagration

May 29, 2009 8:15 a.m.

After a week of escalating race and gender rhetoric from the right over the Sotomayor nomination, it’s now looking like some in the Republican Party — those concerned with actually getting elected — have become alarmed by the political damage the more extreme members of their party may be doing and are moving to rein in the vitriol. It’s the starkest example yet of an interesting division within the right, one that has been apparent for some time, but which the Sotomayor nomination has not only crystalized but accelerated: the right-wing bomb-throwers obsessed with ideological purity versus the right-wing pragmatists who want the party to actually win election again some day.

Make no mistake — all of these people are staunch conservatives. While the bomb-throwers include folks like Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and a colorful cast of other players, the practical folks include the likes of Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), RNC chairman Michael Steele, and pundit Peggy Noonan.

Where you stand depends on where you sit: If your job is to whip up publicity and/or money, then haranguing on Sotomayor is the way to go. But if your job is to not alienate key groups of voters and to work to bring them back, it’s a different story entirely.

Let’s compare and contrast.In his initial reaction on Tuesday, Limbaugh called Sotomayor a “reverse-racist” and demanded that the GOP “go to the wall” against her. The next day, Gingrich said she is “Latina woman racist” who should withdraw. And yesterday, former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) made the interesting claim that she belongs to the “Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses, a reference to her membership in the National Council of La Raza, a longstanding civil rights group. (Really, without the hoods and nooses, what do you have left?) And as we’ve documented, there is a cottage industry on the right dedicated to raising money to oppose her.

But let’s take a look at the other side of the coin. In the last 24 hours or so, some big-name Republican voices — including people who are actually responsible for the day-in and day-out tasks of rebuilding a broken party and getting back into government — have stepped in to dial this stuff back. They clearly understand just how destructive this kind of rhetoric is.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who represents a state with a large Hispanic population and is responsible for the Senate GOP’s campaign in 2010, has denounced Gingrich and Limbaugh. Cornyn appeared yesterday on National Public Radio — note the high-brow venue — and said: “Neither one of these men are elected Republican officials [and] I just don’t think it’s appropriate and I certainly don’t endorse it. I think it’s wrong.” A possibly key statistic here: Cornyn won re-election in 2008 with 36% of the Latino vote — a very good number for a Republican, especially one whose Democratic opponent was a Hispanic state legislator and Iraq War veteran.

Michael Steele gushed this morning, “I’m excited that a Hispanic woman is in this position,” and that the party should not be “slammin’ and rammin'” Sotomayor, but construct arguments against her on purely substantive grounds.

Peggy Noonan was on Morning Joe today, and urged Republicans to above all else not make this about name-calling, and to instead make this a serious discussion about the difference between liberals and conservatives on judicial philosophy. “What I think should be happening here with Sotomayor,” Noonan said, “is that the Republicans take it as an opportunity to be serious. Be calm; be judicious, don’t be on the attack.”

This new establishment push may have had an effect on the bomb-throwers, too. MSNBC correspondent Savannah Guthrie reported just this morning that Wendy Long, one of those big anti-Sotomayor organizers, sent her an e-mail. Guthrie said the message complained that “somehow this important debate is turning into an argument about race and identity politics, and they really want it to be about Sotomayor’s record.”

And at the end of the day, let’s also remember that the “fight” of the Sotomayor is more theater than an actual high-stakes debate. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the head Republican on the Judiciary Committee, admitted two days ago that he didn’t see an actual filibuster in the works. And Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) yesterday told CNN essentially the same thing — that Sotomayor will be confirmed barring some unforeseen disqualifying circumstance.

So if it’s all about performance, the debate is really about what kind of performance the GOP should put on — one to rally the base, or a more respectable show to attempt to win back previously lost voters.

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