The White House's attempt to end the debate about a Sotomayor speech will end up prolonging it.

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June 3 2009 6:07 PM

More Better Judging

The White House's attempt to end the debate about a Sotomayor speech will end up prolonging it.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor leaves after a meeting with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Click image to expand.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor leaves after a meeting with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell 

Last Friday the White House argued that Judge Sonia Sotomayor's "word choice in 2001 was poor" when she said, "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." Today, it undermined its case.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

An administration aide pointed out that in addition to the 2001 speech, in a 1994 speech Sotomayor used nearly identical language: "I would hope that a wise woman with the richness of her experience would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion. What is better? I … hope that better will mean a more compassionate and caring conclusion."

The White House view is that the similarity proves Republicans are being inconsistent. The 1994 speech was included in materials related to Sotomayor's confirmation to the Second Circuit court of Appeals in 1997, and no Republicans made a peep. Why are they objecting now, if not to delay the nomination on any pretext they can find?

This is a small point for the White House to press when doing so exposes a bigger problem. Last week, the White House decided to defuse the debate over the 32-word dustup by saying that Sotomayor made a poor choice of words, specifically by using the word "better." Sotomayor, spokesman Robert Gibbs explained, was merely saying her life experiences influence her judging. The president himself reiterated this point in a television interview. But this new material undermines the White House's argument.

Sotomayor didn't misspeak in 2001. She apparently just repeated her stump speech. The passages from the speeches, given seven years apart, are nearly identical. The only thing that's different between the two speeches is that in 1994, Sotomayor believed that it was merely her gender that made her better—not her gender and her ethnicity, as she claimed in 2001.

So last week when the president said Sotomayor made a poor choice of words in 2001, what was going on? Did his staffers who supposedly vetted Sotomayor's life's work let him down? Or was everyone at the White House just winging it to get past the political heat?

What's odd is that the White House would be saying anything at all today about this, because the issue appeared to be fading. For the GOP, today was apparently Backtrack on Sonia Sotomayor Day. Both Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh moderated their comments somewhat. More to the White House's advantage, Gingrich pointed out that in her rulings—which are, after all, what's germane—Sotomayor had been anything but a racist.

A second puzzle is why the White House would point out what Republicans missed in their review of Sotomayor's record when it is engaged in a debate with those same Republicans over how much time the Senate needs to go through those very records. Republicans can now argue that they need lots more time in order to find tidbits as important as this one from 1994 that the White House is now trying to use to outmaneuver them.

Last week we wondered whether Sotomayor still believed in the underlying sentiment regardless of what the White House called her "poor" choice of words. It's possible she's moved on from this view that her background makes her better. But the evidence that this was her view for at least seven years is probably going to require a disavowal, not merely a claim that she was being imprecise. At the very least, she should delete the passage from her hard drive, so she won't be tempted to cut and paste it again.

Update, June 4: Now that the White House has released Sotomayor's questionnaire to the judiciary committee, there are now at least three other instances, in 1994, 1998, and 2002, in which she expressed a similar sentiment to the much-debated 32 words.

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