Lindsey Graham’s Wise Latino Strategy

Human Rights

He’s not the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary committee, but by dint of his outsized personality, paradoxical statements and prosecutorial manner, the senior senator from South Carolina emerged from the nomination hearing of Judge Sonia Sotomayor as the week’s winner. By turns condescending to and laudatory of the nominee, Lindsey Graham, for most of the week, seemed to issue his half-promise to vote for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as if it were a threat -- and one of which he was weary.

The high-handed manner with which he treated the accomplished federal judge before him bugged the hell out of me (as Graham himself said twice of Sotomayor’s speeches); here’s a snippet from this morning’s testimony that was typical of his affect throughout the proceedings:

GRAHAM (TO SOTOMAYOR): You have been very reassuring here today and throughout this hearing that you're going to try to understand the difference between judging and whatever political feelings you have about groups or gender.

He pushed her, once again, about the speech she made eight years ago, when she spoke of her hope that a "wise Latina" judge might do better on the bench than a wise judge who is not Latina. This prompted a very somber Sotomayor to reply: "I regret that I have offended someone. I believe that my life demonstrates that that was not my intent to leave the impression taken from my words."

Yet, throughout the proceedings, one got the sense that Graham's grudging admiration for the judge was real on both counts -- not that it wasn’t good politics for a Southern man with a largely white constituency, but also, among the 50 states, the fastest-growing Latino population, as well. In making a big show of going after the judge’s decisions, in treating her at times like a child or hired help, Graham threw some meat to the conservative white folks who voted him into office. In defending Sotomayor, as he did in the end, as an impressive individual, he fed the pride of a constituency that could provide the margin that may ultimately keep him there.

It was all done quite brilliantly. And the hearing’s final panel -- one that was seated long after Sotomayor had left the room -- offered him the perfect foil. Call it the Enemies of Sotomayor Panel: Republican pundit Linda Chavez, shafted firefighter Frank Ricci, and Ricci’s ally in the reverse-discrimination suit against the City of New Haven, firefighter Ben Vargas. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined the panel, not as an outright enemy, but as a supporter who has some qualms. Thus, the Enemies and the Qualmist were, seemingly, a purposefully chosen ethnic pastiche, a panel likely designed as insulation from any charge of racism or ethnic prejudice that might be leveled at a team uniformly pale and Protestant in make-up. Yet, with none from ethnic or demographic backgrounds to which an aggrieved white guy of the South was likely to be sympathetic, Graham found the perfect foil for his defense of Sotomayor. Every member was patted and batted, except for the panel's one woman, who suffered the double jeopardy of being both Hispanic and female, forced into the role of being the Latina who must be fed to the lions if another of her ilk was to survive.

Tee up Linda Chavez, who began her scathing opening statement this way:

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