Sotomayor's Public Image At Risk, Early

By Marc Ambinder
If the White House and Democrats have gained political insight from the experience of the first 100 days, Barack Obama's first nomination to the Supreme Court will put these skills to the test.

The White House might want to brief those liberal activists pushing Obama to nominate 2nd Circuit judge Sonia Sotomayor on one lesson in particular: the predecisional period -- the period before the White House engages on a particular issue -- is much more important than it seems. (Just ask anyone at the Department of the Treasury about this.) 

Few outside the White House know whether the Sotomayor chatter is based on anything other than her popularity among center-left jurists, although her name has been the subject of conversation among some top officials recently. Sotomayor is seen as a compassionate voice for the underprivileged, and she has a solid, if unspectacular, record of jurisprudence. (For that reason alone, I don't know if she'll make the short list; Obama seems to go for the superlatives.)
Conservative talk radio hosts have begun impugning Sotomayor's credibility. And the respectable intellectual center -- see Jeffrey Rosen's case against her temperament and inherent intellectual abilities -- is beginning to have doubts.

There's a defense of Sotomayor somewhere out there -- her family history, stories of personal compassion, her best rulings -- but no one is making it. And for those who want Obama to nominate Sotomayor, that's a mistake. 

The White House remains in lockdown over the nomination. They're not floating trial balloons. The pat responses from the White House about the qualities Obama wants in a nominee are not about selling any particular nominee. So the White House is not defending any prospective choice.

If Sotomayor loses control of her public image before her nomination, then liberal groups will have trouble in the months ahead. Obama's nominee will probably pass through the Senate fairly easily, but a discredited nominee -- even though she might make it to the Court -- will not. A Supreme Court fight is bound to energize liberals.  

Based on prior practices, if there is any political calculation involved at all, Obama wants to avoid energizing conservatives. He'd prefer to enervate them. Of course, finding an unimpeachable nominee who is acceptable to the left and doesn't light a fire under the right is difficult. 

I suspect that most Hispanic pressure groups who want Sotomayor (she'd be the first Latina on the court) don't realize that if they don't fight back, then Sotomayor will be perfunctorily vetted and then jettisoned. This is one time when the White House wants the interest groups to help them frame the politics. (If a consensus choice emerges among liberals and is acceptable to Obama -- watch out!)

Sotomayor is credentialed and perceived as qualified -- even as this next appointment is openly discussed within a gender and ethnicity context. How large is the pool of similarly perceived Latinas?  

So far, Hispanic groups don't appear to have a process or strategy of securing liberal and Democratic support for the idea of Latina as the next nominee -- a process that precedes, in time, a White House decision.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/05/sotomayors-public-image-at-risk-early/17111/