In the waning days of the 2008 presidential campaign, an anti-Palin bumper sticker began appearing on the rusty backsides of Subarus across the fruited plains: “She’s Not a Woman, She’s a Republican!” There are two ways to read that: The intended reading is that Governor Palin’s conservatism negated whatever attraction her sex might have had for women and for practitioners of identity politics. Conservatives, with their meritocratic preferences, might have endorsed a slightly different reading: “Who cares about her sex? She believes in the right things.”
The latter reading probably would have been disingenuous. Republicans may not support affirmative action as such, but they are not naïve when it comes to electoral calculus. When Pres. George W. Bush nominated Miguel Estrada to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, there were no “He’s Not a Hispanic, He’s a Republican!” bumper-stickers, though there might as well have been. As Americans are treated to a fresh dose of racial essentialism and Hispanic grievance politics with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, it is worth remembering how Estrada was treated by the same Democrats and leftist pressure groups that now celebrate, sanctimoniously, Sotomayor’s race-based views and President Obama’s implicit endorsement of them.
Byron York has an authoritative analysis of congressional Democrats’ two-faced take on Sotomayor and Estrada here. Behind closed doors, the Democrats were honest about Estrada, saying they had “identified Miguel Estrada as especially dangerous, because he has a minimal paper trail, he is Latino, and the White House seems to be grooming him for a Supreme Court appointment.” And while the most outrageous elements of the Democratic leadership’s abuse of Estrada have been much discussed, there is much that is entertaining, and despair-inducing, in the Democrats’ judicial strategy memos, compiled by the Wall Street Journal here. Sample: “Ultimately, if [Chairman Pat] Leahy insists on having an August hearing, it appears that the groups are willing to let [Timothy] Tymkovich [Tenth Circuit] go through (the core of the coalition made that decision last night, but they are checking with the gay rights groups).” There is something illuminating in that: The Democratic party is different from the Republican party in that it is bound more by coalitional politics, the politics of mutual interest, than by philosophy, and therefore the gay-rights groups held a veto over the nomination of Timothy Tymkovich to the Tenth Circuit.
Who held the veto power over Estrada’s nomination? It is always worth keeping in mind that the Democrats’ first and most important constituency is the media. What did the mainstream media have to say about Estrada? Dahlia Lithwick of Slate called the nomination “cynical” and accused Bush of “pandering.” Michel Martin, an ABC reporter — reporter, mind you, not an opinion commentator — dismissed Estrada as “an affirmative-action candidate.” Estrada enjoyed the highest possible rating from the American Bar Association, no friend of conservatives, and had a distinguished career in both private practice and government, but an ABC reporter felt comfortable describing him thus: “He is an affirmative-action candidate, as practiced by the Republican party and the conservative movement.” Martin, a former Washington Post hand and at one time the Wall Street Journal’s White House correspondent, has been knee-deep in grievance politics; among her efforts at ABC was the race-obsessed “America in Black and White.” Naturally, she has landed at NPR, the government’s green pasture for liberal mediocrities.
Martin also worked on the Clarence Thomas hearings, and that is significant. People for the American Way described Estrada as a “Latino Clarence Thomas.” And, as with that Palin bumper sticker, there are two ways of reading that. Suffice it to say that PFAW did not intend it as a compliment. Senator Kennedy, too, had Justice Thomas on the brain, fearing that Estrada would eventually end up on the Supreme Court. “If we allow a stealth right-winger on this court, we have only ourselves to blame,” he said. “We must filibuster Miguel Estrada’s nomination. The White House is almost telling us that they plan to nominate him to the Supreme Court. We can’t repeat the mistake we made with Clarence Thomas.” Kennedy was being dishonest, and not just out of habit: There was nothing stealthy about Justice Thomas’s legal opinions. By “stealth” Kennedy and other liberals meant “undercover,” specifically under the cover of brown skin. “He’s Not a Hispanic, He’s an Originalist!”
Or maybe not Hispanic at all. Just as white liberals have denounced government-aid critic Dambisa Moyo, an economist from Zambia, as being inauthentic in her Africanness, Estrada’s critics pronounced that he was not really Hispanic, in spite of being born and raised in Honduras. Angelo Falcon of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund did not find Estrada Hispanic enough: “It’s not good enough to simply say that because of someone’s genetics or surname that they should be considered Hispanic.”
Likewise, Rep. (now Sen.) Robert Menendez of New Jersey said Estrada simply “shares a surname” with Hispanics, but did not share their values, which, we must infer from the congressman’s analysis, are heritable traits — why else make the distinction? Menendez and Kennedy did a tag-team act in Congress, with Menendez denying Estrada’s Hispanic credentials and Kennedy resorting to cartoonish Hispanic stereotypes, fabricating, out of whole cloth, a “temperament” problem for Estrada, a “short fuse” and an inability to keep himself “even-tempered.” The appeal to the stereotype of the hot-headed Latino was not lost on observers. One Hispanic leader told Fox News that Kennedy’s remarks were “offensive” and “racist.” Another source said Kennedy was “trying to make him into Ricky Ricardo.” Estrada, to his credit, did not respond by proclaiming himself a “wise Latino” or by opining about “how wonderful and magical it is to have a Latino soul.”
A few Hispanic groups eventually took notice. The League of United Latin American Citizens — again, not exactly a conservative outfit — saw through the racial electioneering: “There is nothing in Miguel Estrada’s extensive record that would lead a reasonable person to conclude anything other than this nominee is an exceptionally well qualified, highly principled attorney, who will make a fine judge on the D.C. Circuit,” LULAC president Hector Flores said.
Less supportive was the National Council of La Raza, which declined to take an official position on the nomination but which nonetheless did its Democratic masters’ bidding in playing along with the farce that Estrada had been insufficiently forthcoming during the nomination process. It was the usual lukewarm hogwash, as they pronounced themselves “concerned” that “serious questions remain unanswered.” La Raza has not always been so finicky in its associations, as its history of association with frankly racist Latino separatist organizations demonstrates.
But that is the perverse nature of identity politics on the left: Estrada’s Hispanic background was not enough to endear him to groups such as La Raza, which are Democratic franchises first and foremost, regardless of the particularities of their agendas. No conservative will ever be Hispanic enough for La Raza, black enough for the NAACP, or gay enough for GLAAD. Unsurprisingly, La Raza is more happily disposed toward Sotomayor, who is a member of their organization, which, among other things, opposes the enforcement of U.S. immigration law. Perhaps that makes one more authentically Hispanic, in their view. But what about the law? She’s not a Hispanic, she’s a potential Supreme Court justice.
– Kevin Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review.