31 Votes to Lose a Constituency

31 Votes to Lose a Constituency

By Ruben Navarrette - August 12, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- During his recent HBO special, "Tall, Dark and Chicano," comedian George Lopez tore a hole in the Big Tent. Incensed that 31 Senate Republicans had voted against Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, Lopez informed the GOP that it would never again get the votes of Latinos. In fact, he said, given changing demographics, Republicans might as well get used to losing in the years to come because "you won't win a ... pie-eating contest."

That's harsh, but fair. Republicans know not what they did. They're only fooling themselves if they think they won't pay a price for their petty opposition to the nation's first Latina justice.

Remember when Republicans used to say that people should take responsibility for their actions? Never mind. They didn't mean it. Not when it comes to Senate Republicans trying to dodge responsibility for voting against Sotomayor. They might be able to stand behind their votes if they weren't afraid that they were standing on quicksand. They're terrified that Hispanics will be sore winners and take retribution at the ballot box -- starting in 2010 and possibly lasting for decades.

In fact, Republicans are so desperate to avoid incurring the wrath of one of the fastest growing parts of the electorate that they've pulled a page from the Democrats' playbook. The left is always trying to camouflage its true agenda with flowery rhetoric. Liberals talk about increasing Latino representation on the federal bench but then torpedo a highly qualified Latino Republican such as Miguel Estrada, President George W. Bush's choice for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. With the left, forget what they say and watch what they do.

It's the same thing with the Republican senators who voted against Sotomayor. They say all the right things, before proceeding to do the wrong thing. Many of them went to great lengths to praise the nominee's qualifications, then voted against her because, they said, they were concerned about her speeches or afraid that she was a judicial activist.

The critics need new material. You'd think the senators had never given a speech they wish they could take back. Sotomayor isn't a judicial activist, as anyone who watched the confirmation hearings knows. But what if she were? She'd fit right in with her new colleagues on the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy flexed their judicial activism in the New Haven firefighters case and in earlier cases involving the expansion of executive power.

Here's the real reason those Republicans opposed Sotomayor. They were catering to the white males who are still in the party and now account for most of its base. Those voters were miffed by the "wise Latina," and they're not about to vote for anyone who backed her. It's also interesting that many of those who voted "no" come from states with large Hispanic populations, such as Arizona and Texas. You would think that they might worry about a backlash from Hispanic voters. But, it is also in those states that white voters are especially nervous about what they see as racially antagonistic rhetoric from Hispanics, who are coming to greater prominence because of changing demographics.

At the same time, by singing Sotomayor's praises, Republicans must think that they covered their tracks. If they ever have to explain themselves, they can pull out a copy of their floor speeches and hope that no one bothers to look at how they actually voted.

First, the Republicans insult Sotomayor, as when Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma mistook the judge for Lucille Ball, telling her that she "had lots of 'splaining to do." And now they're insulting the intelligence of 48 million Latinos in the United States.

Christmas may be coming early for Democrats. After several generations of taking Hispanics for granted and offering little more than mariachis and salsa, how did Democrats get so lucky as to draw opponents who are so skilled at absolutely repelling this constituency?

Perhaps the biggest disappointment to many of us who like to believe in kinder, gentler Republicans is that Sotomayor's opponents included none other than Sen. John McCain. During last year's presidential campaign, McCain's record of serving the Latino community far surpassed that of Barack Obama. Now, thanks to a historic nomination to the Supreme Court, and how badly McCain and his fellow Republicans bungled it, I'd say that Obama is all caught up.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post5 Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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