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Commentary: GOP plays identity politics, too

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Conservatives are using Miguel Estrada case against Sotomayor
  • He says Estrada was wrongly defeated by Democrats when nominated by Bush
  • Navarrette: Republicans share blame for being weak in defending Estrada
  • He says Estrada episode is not a good reason to oppose Sotomayor
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette says Miguel Estrada was treated badly by both parties when he was nominated to appeals court.

Ruben Navarrette says Miguel Estrada was treated badly by both parties when he was nominated to appeals court.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- By nominating U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, President Obama made history. Meanwhile, conservatives -- by invoking the name of Miguel Estrada -- are coming close to rewriting it.

Trying to find a way to oppose Sotomayor without further enraging Latinos, those on the right are trying to change the subject by reaching back to 2002 and recalling what happened to Estrada, President Bush's nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

As conservatives point out, Democrats treated Estrada dreadfully. It was the first time in U.S. history that a minority in the Senate used a filibuster to kill an appeals court nomination. Eventually, Estrada asked Bush to withdraw his name. Today, he is still one of the best, most highly regarded lawyers in Washington.

And why did Democrats go after this nominee so aggressively? It's because -- like Sotomayor -- Estrada was a threat. The only difference is who feels threatened. Back then, it was Democrats. Now it's Republicans.

Since I've defended Sotomayor against attacks by the right, I've heard from a couple of dozen readers who want to know if I also defended Estrada when he was attacked by the left.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. I wrote five columns praising Estrada and blasting Democrats for refusing to so much as give him a hearing for more than two years after Bush nominated him in May 2001.

At the time, a White House official told me, "Miguel's a star. And the Democrats know he's a star. That's why they're afraid of him."

Born in Honduras, Estrada came to the United States at 17, taught himself English and went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was also an editor of the law review.

Estrada then served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and later as an assistant U.S. solicitor general, where he argued 15 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won 10.

Unable to challenge his qualifications, Democrats did to Estrada what Republicans are trying to do to Sotomayor: They drew a caricature. Whereas Sotomayor has been criticized by conservatives for being too quick to identify herself as Hispanic, Estrada was accused by liberals of not being "Hispanic enough."

The stakes were high. Had Estrada taken his seat on the prestigious D.C. Circuit Court, it would have left him within striking distance of going on to become the first Hispanic on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now that honor may well go to Sotomayor. So, conservatives ask, given how Estrada was treated, why should they treat Sotomayor any better?

At first, you think what in the world does one story have to do with the other. Besides, weren't these folks taught that two wrongs don't make a right? But there is a point in there somewhere -- about double standards and hypocrisy and how Democrats and the media only respect minority success stories when the person succeeding is liberal and not conservative.

All true. Yet, that is only part of the story. And it's the missing piece that conservatives aren't interested in telling.

By speaking to people who were close to the process, including someone charged by the White House to help shepherd the nomination, I confirmed what I remember from those days: Republicans in the Senate, even though they were in the majority, did a lousy job of defending Estrada. And this was after they made a huge deal about Estrada's story and how it represented the American Dream. Yada, yada.

That kind of billing got the Democrats' attention, and they came at Estrada with both barrels, fearing a potential Estrada appointment to the Supreme Court would pay huge dividends for the GOP with Hispanic voters for a generation or more.

But the Republicans never finished what they started. Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, whose party had only a bare majority in the Senate, was disastrously weak, allowing himself to be bullied and manipulated by Democrats Patrick Leahy, Charles Schumer, Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy.

As majority leader, Frist had a number of procedural tools at his disposal to force the issue, but he was reluctant to use them. The Republican members were likewise missing in action. There were different reasons for that, according to those close to the proceedings.

Some were distracted by other issues and didn't really care one way or another whether Estrada got his hearing. Others were -- as opponents of policies such as affirmative action -- a little queasy about the race-conscious way the nomination was pitched by the White House.

In the end, Senate Republicans abandoned Miguel Estrada and let the Democrats smear him, although it's hard to find anyone on the right who will admit to that now. The moral: as eager as the political parties are to climb onto a high horse, both dabble in identity politics. Democrats just do it more effectively than Republicans.

If conservatives are going to tell the story of what happened to Miguel Estrada, they ought to tell it right. And, whatever they do, they shouldn't use one debacle as an excuse for creating another.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

All About Sonia SotomayorU.S. Supreme CourtBill Frist

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