After Sonia Sotomayor’s 2001 remarks at UC Berkeley came to light last week, in which she claimed that her Latina heritage and gender made her a better judge than a white male, pundits rightly criticized Sotomayor and the identity politics that remark represented.  In fact, even the White House eventually conceded that Sotomayor had chosen her words poorly, distancing themselves from the sentiment she clearly expressed.  However, some of the criticism involved calling Sotomayor a “racist”, which became another flashpoint for the backlash against Sotomayor’s critics.  Now the most prominent of those critics has begun walking back the comment:

Shortly after President Obama nominated her to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, I read Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s now famous words:

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

My initial reaction was strong and direct — perhaps too strong and too direct.  The sentiment struck me as racist and I said so. Since then, some who want to have an open and honest consideration of Judge Sotomayor’s fitness to serve on the nation’s highest court have been critical of my word choice.

With these critics who want to have an honest conversation, I agree.  The word “racist” should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable (a fact which both President Obama and his Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, have since admitted).

So it is to her words — the ones quoted above and others — to which we should turn, for they show that the issue here is not racial identity politics.  Sotomayor’s words reveal a betrayal of a fundamental principle of the American system — that everyone is equal before the law.

Exactly.  Republicans have an opportunity to have a “grand debate” on judicial philosophy and equality under the law, and Sotomayor’s comments are a gift to the GOP in pressing their own position on the judiciary.  Most Americans believe that the rule of law should be gender- and ethnicity-blind and reject the notion that government and the courts should privilege one group over another based on their ancestry or sexual equipment.  Republicans have a golden opportunity to tap into that value, and to show that the Democrats are more committed to identity politics than ever before.

However, that opportunity will vanish if the public sees Republicans overreacting to the Sotomayor nomination.  The statement speaks for itself; we do not need to arrogate to ourselves the ability to peer into Sotomayor’s soul to determine whether she “hates” or is just enamored of identity-based outcomes.  The latter is sufficient enough to paint this nomination, and the man who made it, as problematic and troubling for the rule of law.  Getting hysterical only undermines the credibility of the opposition.

Newt gets it right the second time around, and he’s man enough to admit he blew it on the first try.