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Barely a Scratch

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009 10:14 AM

It wasn't so much what Sonia Sotomayor said, but how she said it.

No matter what the Republicans threw at her, she didn't get rattled.

She spoke slowly and deliberately, as if addressing a class of junior high students. And she sounded so . . . reasonable.

The nominee made a wise decision to back off her wise Latina remark rather than splitting hairs in defending it. She even walked away from Obama's formulation that a judge, in a small percentage of cases, should be influenced by her heart. Beyond that, whether the subject was Roe or Ricci, she did what past Supreme Court nominees have done so effectively: discussed the issues in generalities while refusing to offer her specific views.

In the end, Sotomayor bobbed and weaved rather effectively. The Republicans barely laid a glove on her.

The focus of the hearing was not whether she's qualified for the high court, but whether her views render her out of the mainstream. That's a hard case to make after 17 years of narrowly tailored rulings. Even in the New Haven firefighters case, four members of the Supreme Court -- one short of a majority -- agreed with Sotomayor that the city was justified in throwing out what it regarded as a racially biased exam.

Perhaps the GOP senators didn't want to appear overly harsh on the first Hispanic (and only the third woman) named to the Supremes. So the questioning remained at an intellectual level. With Sotomayor's confirmation virtually assured and their party's base shrinking, the question for some Republicans is whether they should vote for her and save their firepower for another court nominee who might be easier to demonize.

Administration strategists have to be relieved that Sotomayor emerged relatively unscathed. The White House has plenty of legislative fights on its hands. Obama and company would love to get this thing behind them and focus on health care.

LAT: "Skeptical Republicans did no serious damage to President Obama's Supreme Court nominee during the first full day of questioning today, as an unruffled Judge Sonia Sotomayor cautiously, if at times ploddingly, fended off sharp questions."

USA Today: "Judge Sonia Sotomayor insisted Tuesday under pointed questioning that her ethnicity and gender will not influence her decisions if she is confirmed as the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice."

Washington Times: "Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor retreated from her praise of the 'wise Latina,' endorsed a privacy right to abortion in the Constitution and insisted she was not opposed to gun ownership during a day of questioning on a string of hot-button issues before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday."

NYT: "Judge Sotomayor approached the task as a seasoned advocate. She struck a tone of attentive deference, avoided needless argument, said no more than she needed to prevail, stuck almost entirely to uncontroversial points and avoided antagonizing her questioners.

"The hearings have as a consequence, so far at least, failed to illuminate very much how Judge Sotomayor would approach the work of a Supreme Court justice. She was certainly prepared, apropos almost any question, to say that she would faithfully apply the law to the facts. Asked to describe whether she subscribed to one or another school of constitutional interpretation, she said, 'I don't use labels.' "

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick: "Even when Sotomayor is being questioned about her judicial record, the focus isn't on her legal approach or process but on the outcomes. So when she talks about her Ricci decision, Jeff Sessions asks her why she didn't apply affirmative action precedents that had no bearing in a case that was not an affirmative action case. When she speaks about Didden, her eminent domain case, Republican Chuck Grassley asks why she didn't analyze the Kelo precedent in a case about timely filing. Nobody wants to hear how she got to a result. They want to know why she didn't get to their result. Time and again she is hectored for deciding the narrow issues before her. It's like a judicial-activism pep rally in here.

"Senate Democrats are almost as confused. About half of them insist that she is a narrow, mechanical, pro-prosecution judge--the perfectly neutral umpire, John Roberts in sensible pumps. The other half utterly reject the balls-and-strikes talk, saying she's empathetic, dammit, and that's a good thing."

Why have the hearings been less than scintillating? In the New Republic, Michael Schaffer says it's a sign of the times:

"As a longtime confirmation junkie, I was thrilled about this prospect. With hot-button matters of race and privilege front and center, not to mention the bipartisan audience of deep-pocketed activists chanting for blood, the sessions could feature the sort of televisual drama that has made the judicial nomination proceedings -- which ought to be plodding exercises in legal analysis--some of the most compelling political theater in modern America. After years of boring judicial hearings, I eagerly awaited a return to the golden age of Confirmation Kabuki--a battle royale between those who would paint the judge as the American Dreamer of the South Bronx and those who would cast her as the Quota Queen of the West Village.

"But if the tepid-run up to the hearing and first day of questioning are any indication, the confirmation process is likely to be more seminar than sideshow. Ruy Teixeira argued that the absence of Thunderdome-style anticipation is a function of a culture war gone quiet. To me, the ennui has less to do with the prospective contents of the hearing, and more to do with the national culture in which they're taking place. In the age of Drudge and reality TV and twittering congressmen, the old gladiatorial magic of a confirmation face-off--with all those old quotes yanked out of context, all those hyperbolic speeches untethered by reality--no longer seems quite so unique. Previously a compelling interruption to the mundane regular news cycle, such theatrics now are the regular news cycle. In the process, hearings that might once have riveted the country now play like Project Runway, only with uglier models."

Well, maybe. But these particular hearings are tepid because everyone knows what the outcome will be.

We'll Be Really Nice

How badly did some media types want to land an interview with Mark Sanford? The State has obtained office e-mails that show some serious sucking up among the governor's journalistic suitors.

A staffer with the Washington Times wrote in an e-mail that "if you all want to speak on this publicly, you're welcome to Washington Times Radio. You know that you will be on friendly ground here!"

(John Solomon told TPM that a marketing employee had sent the note, which, he said, contained a "poor choice of words.")

On June 23, a Fox News Channel correspondent wrote to Sawyer, "Having known the Governor for years and even worked with him when he would host radio shows for me -- I find this story and the media frenzy surrounding it to be absolutely ridiculous! Please give him my best."

At the Wall Street Journal's online opinion page, associate editor Brendan Miniter took to denigrating his own newsroom's coverage of the Sanford affair. "Someone at WSJ should be fired for today's story. Ridiculous," Miniter wrote.

Stephen Colbert played the role of Comedy Central booker: "If the Governor is looking for a friendly place to make light of what I think is a small story that got blown out of scale, I would be happy to have him on. In person here, on the phone, or in South Carolina. Stay Strong, Stephen."

And then there was our own Mr. Fix, Chris Cillizza, who was simply checking in with Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer during the "Appalachian Trail" disappearance:

"Dude, is everything okay?"

The reply: "Yep, slow news day."

Not for long.

Whither Hillary

With Hillary Clinton slated to give a big speech today to the Council on Foreign Relations, Politico questions why she's fallen off the radar:

"Officials at the White House and State Department reject the notion that Clinton has been marginalized -- and note that much of the low profile is of Clinton's choosing. She has made, for instance, just one appearance on a Sunday morning talk show -- and none until last month -- but they insist that's an absence as much of her choosing as of the White House's. The White House press office sought to book her on Sunday shows three times before, an official said, but she declined each time, twice because she was overseas and once because she was in New York for Mother's Day."

Tina Brown has a darker interpretation, saying the secretary of state needs to raise her profile:

"It's time for Barack Obama to let Hillary Clinton take off her burqa . . .

"Hillary finds herself in a familiar bind with a different twist. If she allows daylight between herself and the president, she becomes the kind of lame duck Colin Powell became once foreign powers realized the ex-general was nowhere near Bush's inner circle. It becomes clearer by the day how brilliantly Obama checkmated both Clintons by putting Hillary in the topmost Cabinet job. Secretary Clinton can't be seen to differ from the president without sabotaging her own power. And ex-President Clinton has been uncharacteristically disciplined about not threatening the careful political equilibrium his wife is trying to maintain. Besides, when Hillary had her own deep misgivings about taking the job in the first place, it was Bill who seconded Obama and encouraged her to accept.

"The Big Dog's sacrifice (and, maybe, Hillary's revenge) is that he no longer can behave like a roving superstar diplomat without a portfolio. He has been curtailed in how freewheeling he can be running his successful Clinton Global Initiative . . .

"Even when there's legitimate credit to be had, she remains invisible. Contrary to administration spin that Joe Biden played a critical role in the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, the vice president stayed opposed to Obama's strategy. It was Hillary, sources tell me, whom the president relied on throughout the deliberations with principal national-security advisers to support and successfully argue his point of view. The need to paper over the difference between Obama and the vice president meant Hillary's role went unacknowledged."

Isn't it the media that want Hillary back in the spotlight? We think team players are bo-ring.

Liberal Era Ends!

Boy, that was quick. Bill Kristol, who kept trying to pump life into the McCain candidacy, sees Obama faltering:

"The air is seeping out of the Great Liberal Hot Air Balloon. American liberals have been hoping, wishing, and praying -- okay, maybe not praying -- for over a quarter-century for an end to the ghastly interlude of conservative dominance ushered in by Ronald Reagan. Surely it was all a bad dream, a waking nightmare, a bizarre deviation from the preordained path of history.

"With the Democratic congressional victories in November 2006, the nightmare seemed to be ending. And in November 2008, with the election of Barack Obama and increased congressional majorities, it seemed to be over. A new era had dawned.

"But did it? Maybe we're now experiencing a liberal interlude, not a liberal inflection point. After all, only six months into the new administration, even a talented hot air blower like President Obama, assisted by friendly gusts of wind from the media, is having trouble keeping the liberal blimp afloat.

"The stimulus hasn't worked. Cap-and-trade and health care reform are in trouble. The can't-we-all-get-along foreign policy isn't leading to a more peaceful world. And the administration seems to have no idea what to do about Guantánamo.

"Congressional Democrats are nervous. Even Obama's media base is concerned. At the end of last week, three leading Obamaphiles offered their lamentations. 'The fact is, Obama may be blowing a major opportunity for reform,' worried Joe Klein. 'There's now a real risk that President Obama will find himself caught in a political-economic trap,' warned Paul Krugman. 'Failure. Overwhelming, amazing failure,' was David Brooks's take on the administration's effort to deal with health care inflation--something the president is (according to Brooks) 'fervently committed to reducing.' "

Brooks is hardly a major Obama booster and Krugman is urging the president to go for a second stimulus; hardly a major stampede by the press. At Time, meanwhile, Joe Klein objects to being drafted for Kristol's argument:

"It's no surprise that Kristol has added his name to the hilarious tendency on the right to predict THE UTTER FAILURE AND COMPLETE COLLAPSE OF THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION. And he has now cited me as evidence that such is the case. He quotes me -- accurately, (an infrequent event at the Weekly Standard) -- as saying that Obama may be blowing a real chance for reform.

"Well, yes. I wrote that last week. I questioned Obama's domestic policy tactics. Still do. But I find the president's economic and social policies a vast relief after the quantum-ignorance of the Bush administration . . . and I still think we have a very good chance of passing a significant and much-needed health care reform this year."

NYT's Balance Sheet

After selling two New York radio stations, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. explains to his staff why the New York Times Co.'s billion-dollar debt is a manageable problem.

Less 'Meet'

David Gregory's "Meet the Press" is being preempted for tennis more often than in the Russert era, Mediaite notes.

Drudge Spreads the Wealth

Ever wonder who in the vast media universe gets the most Drudge links? The top guy is his former assistant, Andrew Breitbart, according to a study cited by Gawker:

"Breitbart.com has been the chief beneficiary of Drudge links, netting 14,923 (or 14.5% of all links) since 2002, largely because Breitbart himself was doing the linking. Nice gig! The top newspaper beneficiary was The Washington Post with 6,471, nearly twice as many as the New York Times. And even though it was in existence for only two of the six years that [the author] studied, Politico ranked 16th in terms of total Drudge links, catching nearly 50 in January of 2008 alone."

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