On 1 May, Justice Souter confirmed some long running rumors and formally announced he was preparing to retire. Before the ink was dry on his signature, the game over his replacement started. No one was nominated for the position yet, of course, but a number of people were preparing to skewer whoever was so anointed as other prepared to defend them. It was good old-fashioned tribalism made into a bizarre ritual performance.
What’s the point of this game? I have no idea, but I know who is playing it well. The nomination was a potential problem for Obama because he had to both please supporters of many stripes while not giving too much ammunition to opponents. His pick, Judge Sotomayor, was perfect in just about every way imaginable for many reasons. Her long record proves she is qualified, she is a Latina, and she is very outspoken. In fact, I find her remarkable bluntness and good sense of humor to be very refreshing. But making an excellent pick only goes so far in Washingtoon – you have to play the game.
The first sign that this was being played well came when Obama told the world about his pick. He wanted someone with intellect and empathy – a pair of virtues that are unique enough to Judge Sotomayor that he clearly was thinking of her from the start. The New York Times showed its hand by running on 14 May an extended speech by Judge Sotomayor that displays these same qualities. Clearly, the Times is living up to its role as the place where the Democratic establishment can leak stuff as a way to loft trial balloons, a role that I find amusing (and very useful to know).
When the choice was announced, the attack mechanism went into full tilt on the right, but they were already behind since Obama was controlling the game. There is a clip where Judge Sotomayor states that the Appeals Court “makes policy”, but the extended version of it shows that she was displaying her amazing candor in a way that can only be called refreshing. There is little chance that what is said on the ‘net will have any effect on Senators, the only people who matter.
Has that quieted the assaults on this “activist” who makes “policy” from the bench? Of course not. The game is still on for one very good reason: this is tribal. What is important here is not necessarily winning, but losing in the right way. A good politician never allows a vote to take place until they know how it will turn out so that they know how to position themselves; if you’re sure you will lose, you make sure everyone knows how you refuse to abandon your principles. A strong stand like this is a war cry for the tribe to gather and to keep them together for the next battle.
This will all keep on because it is not about who sits as a justice of the Supreme Court. One side will fight to demonstrate their principles, and the other will engage them for the same reason. That’s what the game is really all about.
Obama’s game is already winding down. He made sure that everything happened on a quiet week when the coverage would be slow and the world would know his pick on her own terms. He won by neutralizing the game. That doesn’t stop the game from playing out, but it strips it of any real meaning. For those of us who see no point in this game, we’re left to revel in how very well Obama practices politics. On to the next round!