There he was, straight from his role as the terrorist mastermind on 24, calling on Republicans to "bring an end to this false prophet, Obama." Watching actor Jon Voight emceeing the GOP's big fundraiser at the Washington Convention Center this week made me miss Charlton Heston, the party's earlier claim to Hollywood fame. Heston was always aggressive in defense of gun rights, but at least he came up with original lines. Voight's act was tired, a predictable recycling of now familiar partisan jabs at President Obama.
The Republicans are a party in search of an identity, and the incendiary language surrounding the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has shown just how far off track they've gone. Sotomayor is better qualified in terms of her legal credentials than anybody currently on the court. The GOP was outmaneuvered on this one, and the over-the-top remarks from Newt Gingrich and Tom Tancredo created a backlash that Senate Republicans are still trying to dig their way out of with Hispanic voters and women without offending the party's Southern-white-male base.
"This isn't target practice," says a GOP source. "You don't get to just throw something up on the wall and see if it sticks." Without any apparent deep-seated beliefs to guide their opposition to Sotomayor, Republicans look petulant. The intraparty battle over who speaks for the GOP and how to handle the court fight has taken its toll. A USA Today/Gallup poll this week found a third of Republicans have an unfavorable opinion of their own party.
Senate Republicans are trying to delay Sotomayor's hearing, which is set for July 13, arguing that she has ruled in thousands of cases and they need the time to review each decision. They're hoping they'll get lucky and some poison pill will emerge from the documents, but the truth is there isn't much fodder for either side. "She's boring," says a liberal activist. She doesn't overturn precedent; her rulings are very narrow; she makes no great pronouncements. "She's our John Roberts," the activist says, in the sense that Sotomayor has been smart—and cautious—about how she has approached decision making. Roberts had served only two years as a lower-court judge before resigning to become a corporate lawyer. His lack of a record on hot-button social issues made it hard for Democrats to oppose him. "It's actually pretty wonderful to see someone on our side could do what that guy did," says the activist. "She wanted this so much, and she's been lucky. She hasn't had to address guns, gay rights, abortion. Her rulings are so narrow that they escape scrutiny."
The only bump in the road is the now well-known New Haven firefighters case, in which Sotomayor was part of a three-judge panel that sided with the city of New Haven, Conn., in throwing out a test for promotions when no African-American firefighters qualified. The expectation is that the Supreme Court will overrule that decision. In turn, it's expected that Sotomayor will argue she followed precedent in upholding a lower-court decision, and that the elected officials are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Republicans will try to turn the hearings into a debate about affirmative action, but the court decision, expected later this month, will have been handed down by the time of the hearings. Getting overturned will be an embarrassment for Sotomayor, but it won't derail her confirmation.
On the left and the right, you can feel the energy shifting to what comes next. Sotomayor can't be stopped, and that could embolden Obama to be even more aggressive with his next appointment. Whether it's a replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has had health challenges, or Justice John Paul Stevens, who recently turned 89, liberals hope the president will nominate someone as outspoken and provocative on the progressive side as Justice Antonin Scalia has been on the right. Conservatives fear such an appointment because of the potential impact on the court, but they also recognize that such a nominee would be a far more inviting target around which to rally opposition. The expectation is that if Ginsburg steps down, her replacement would almost certainly be a woman; with Stevens there would be more leeway.
Then again, the next act may not be in the court. With the Sotomayor confirmation pretty much a foregone conclusion, Republicans are turning their sights on health-care reform. They figure they have a better chance scoring points with voters when talking about a big-government takeover and the soaring cost of reform than convincing them that Sotomayor shouldn't be on the court. "Free this nation from this Obama oppression," Voight intoned at the GOP dinner. Voight, it should be noted, once played FDR, the first president to seriously argue for a national health-insurance plan. Heston, of course, is best remembered for his heroic Moses in The Ten Commandments. If only Obama could hand down affordable access for all to health care on a stone tablet.