Conspiracy No, Machinery Yes

By general agreement, Hillary Clinton was overstating her case when she described a “vast right-wing conspiracy” back in January. But there is at least a remarkable right-wing machinery at work in American politics. It’s a kind of machinery that doesn’t exist on the left today (though the Comintern used to be good at it).

A case in point is the Republican effort to prevent Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s elevation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Conservatives are not blocking Sotomayor because they feel she is too liberal, or a “judicial activist.” Rather, they’re holding her up on a Rube Goldberg theory that if Justice Stevens announces his retirement this year, President Clinton is likely to nominate Sotomayor as the first Hispanic Justice and that Republicans are better off snuffing her nomination to a lower court than face having to reject a Hispanic woman for the Supreme Court.

Whatever this theory’s merits as a political strategy, it is not the kind of thing any two people on earth are likely to have thought of independently. Nor is it the kind of thing that seems blindingly obvious as soon as you hear it. The sudden conviction of so many conservative voices that Sotomayor Must Be Stopped is therefore a good example of the machinery at work.

The scenario appears to have originated with Thomas Jipping, director of the Judicial Selection Monitoring Project, which is an arm of the conservative Free Congress Foundation. Jipping says he began spelling it out in conversations with the media and Senatorial figures last fall, when the Judiciary Committee held hearings on the nomination. Though Jipping disclaims credit, others on the right soon began raising the same Byzantine specter. First Rush Limbaugh described Sotomayor as on a “rocket ship” to the Supreme Court. Then Paul Gigot devoted his May 29 column in the Wall Street Journal to the subject. Citing speculation among Republicans, Gigot repeated the Sotomayor-to-the-Supremes theory, citing a case made much of by Jipping, in which Sotomayor ruled that a community group could not pay former homeless workers a sub-minimum wage for training jobs. Gigot’s column was followed on June 8 by a Journal editorial raising the same concern–and citing another case also singled out by Jipping.

Just three months ago, Sotomayor was approved on a 16-2 vote by the Judiciary Committee. Now, though, Majority Leader Trent Lott is refusing to schedule a floor debate on her nomination. The Machinery gets results!

Jacob Weisberg