President Obamaâ€™s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court hasnâ€™t triggered a conservative firestorm yet; and like the dog that didnâ€™t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, thatâ€™s part of a larger pattern affecting policy well beyond the Supreme Court. Granted, partisan conservatives find themselves facing an engaging, activist, Democratic president with very broad public support at his back. So itâ€™s unsurprising that most GOP senators are withholding public judgment on Judge Sotomayorâ€™s nomination, and even the RNC has taken the tact, â€˜we havenâ€™t found anything on her â€” yet.â€™ While Newt Gingrich went glibly over the top by calling the Judge a â€œracist,â€ even Rush Limbaugh couldnâ€™t manage anything beyond calling her â€œa hackâ€ who would be â€œa disaster on the court.â€
The problem for partisan conservatives is that nobody listens to them except the bare quarter of the country that already agrees with them. The other three-quarters of us are comprised of partisan progressives, often as sure of their opinions as partisan conservatives, and the great plurality of Americans with views about many things but no unvarying, partisan or ideological take on reality. And every American has fresh memories and often personal feelings about the damage left by the recently departed, partisan conservative administration. So, almost nobody is interested today in hearing about conservative alternatives to the Presidentâ€™s policies and decisions.
Eventually, the not-very-partisan or ideological majority of Americans will accumulate some unhappy memories and personal disappointments about the current administration, and then theyâ€™ll be more prepared to at least listen to the conservative message. That could take several years, so for now, the Republicanâ€™s pitiable default position has become â€˜just say noâ€™ to the most popular president in a generation. The same partisan conservatives who used to advance fairly radical ideas â€” many of which became Bush administration proposals â€” are now reduced to predictable defenders of the status quo, whatever it happens to be.
Economic policy is suffering from this result. The administrationâ€™s approach to the financial market crisis, for example, has been properly questioned as not going far or deep enough into the problem by Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, Simon Johnson and other progressives (including myself). But questions from the progressive side have little political significance, since no administration listens to outside advisors once its proposals have gone public, and everyone knows that friendly critics have no place else to go. The alternatives that matter in politics have to come from the opposition. But the Republican position here has been that government should be involved in the crisis as little as possible â€” which is as close as they can come to a status quo, when the status itself is a disaster. So the public debate never forced the administration to sharpen its own thinking and further hone its policies. The result is an economic program which might succeed â€” or, equally likely, could leave us with a financial system and economy that remain weak for years.
As for the debate over soon-to-be Justice Sotomayor, the Republicans are simply cooked. They canâ€™t credibly say she isnâ€™t up to the job â€” the meme on Harriet Miers â€”since her academic record is brilliant. They canâ€™t credibly say she doesnâ€™t have the requisite experience, since sheâ€™s been a sitting judge longer than any Supreme Court nominee in a century. And they canâ€™t credibly call her a radical, since her opinions place her squarely in the center-left territory occupied by the Justice sheâ€™s replacing. In this last respect at least, she actually represents the status quo that Republicans currently cling to. But their followers wonâ€™t hear of it. So theyâ€™re left with another just-say-no message thatâ€™s certain to further alienate Hispanics, the largest voting group not yet locked in fully to either of the parties, and many women, the largest voting group period.
President Obama can rest easy: Itâ€™s likely to be a long time before most Americans listen to new ideas from conservative Republicans. The rest of us will have to settle for a debate over a Supreme Court nomination thatâ€™s likely to be as incoherent and enervating as the recent public discussions of the great economic issues of our time. In both cases, itâ€™s a genuine shame.