The confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor have become, in a small but significant way, a referendum on the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who took over the post from Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, is under intense pressure to land blows on Sotomayor without offending Hispanic voters. It's a tough task, made all the more difficult by Sessions' history of racially insensitive positions and statements.
So far the results have been mixed. Over at Fox News, host Chris Wallace and his co-panelist applauded the Alabaman for his questioning of Sotomayor, in which he honed in on her past statements about race and her role in Ricci v. DeStefano (the New Haven firefighter case). While other GOPers (notably Utah Sen. Orin Hatch) got stuck in the legal weeds, Sessions tried to draw blood, the Fox panel argued.
But Democrats both in and out of government say that is exactly the type of posture they want.
"Sessions spent 30 minutes talking about lines in speeches taken out of context, instead of her 17 years on the bench," said one Democratic operative working on the Sotomayor confirmation. "When Judge Sotomayor tried to reference her work as a judge and her fidelity to the law in her more than 3000 judicial opinions, Sen. Sessions ignored her answers. In fact, in his 30 minutes of questioning, after spending weeks supposedly reviewing her judicial record, Sen. Sessions could only manage to mention one of her actual decisions as a judge."
Certainly, the image of a white southern senator pressing a Hispanic judge on topics of affirmative action carries racial implications that progressives don't mind addressing. Ian Millhiser, a Legal Research Analyst with the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund, told the Huffington Post that he was "flabbergasted that conservatives picked someone with a long history of race-based attacks as their point person on the Sotomayor hearing."
In some respects, Sessions' questioning has already become the defining feature of Tuesday's hearing. As CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin argued on air: "What's worth noting about what Jeff Sessions -- the line of questioning, was that being a white man, that's normal. Everybody else has biases and prejudices ... but the white man, they don't have any ethnicity, they don't have any gender, they're just like the normal folks, and I thought that was a little jarring."