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Commentary: Sotomayor puts GOP at crossroads

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Republican critics of Sotomayor focusing on affirmative action
  • He says this approach carries huge risks for the Republican party
  • Zelizer: Republicans must choose between Eisenhower, Goldwater models
  • He says party must decide whether to have "big tent" or rely on conservative base
By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism," will be published this fall by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.

Julian E. Zelizer says Sotomayor's critics are taking risks in focusing on affirmative action.

Julian E. Zelizer says Sotomayor's critics are taking risks in focusing on affirmative action.

(CNN) -- It seems as if Republican opponents of President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court are now coalescing around the issue of affirmative action as their main point of attack.

Their focus is her ruling in Ricci v. DeStefano as well as her remark about the benefits that a Latina judge could bring to a court.

Just months after Americans made a historic decision to elect an African-American as president, this approach is a high-stakes strategy that poses huge risks for the GOP regardless of the outcome of this nomination.

Some Republicans, such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich, have called on their colleagues to aggressively oppose Sotomayor in response to arguments about affirmative action and liberalism that have been central to the base of the party. Other Republicans, including several in Congress, have suggested that this strategy would further marginalize the Republican Party among Hispanics, women and moderates.

By focusing an assault on affirmative action, Republicans would add African Americans and other minorities to that list, playing to the accusations of their opponents that the GOP is a white man's party.

The debate about Sotomayor's nomination is in many ways a strategic debate about the future of the Republican Party.

There are two paths rooted in history that the GOP could follow. The first is the model of Dwight Eisenhower, who served as president from 1953 to 1961. He believed the GOP should aim for as broad an electoral coalition as possible.

Eisenhower urged Republicans to accept that large parts of the New Deal would be permanent features of the political landscape. "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history," Eisenhower wrote his brother.

At the same time, President Eisenhower was not scared to find issues that would distinguish his party from Democrats. He spent much of the mid-to-late 1950s railing against the Democratic Congress for spending too much on domestic and defense programs, making fiscal conservatism a signature issue.

Eisenhower's re-election effort in 1956 was a massive triumph. He won 35,590,472 votes and 457 electoral votes compared with Adlai Stevenson, who won 26,022,752 and only 73 electoral votes. Eisenhower even won in five Southern states, including Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana and Virginia, where the Republican Party had historically been weak. While Republicans failed to gain control of Congress, Eisenhower ended his presidency enormously popular.

But many Republicans were not impressed. Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who accused Eisenhower of supporting a "Dime Store New Deal," proposed a different vision for Republicans.

During his 1964 campaign against President Johnson, Goldwater called on his party to stand up for conservative principles. At the Republican convention in San Francisco, Goldwater attacked middle-of-the-road Republicanism. His supporters booed opponent Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, when he spoke to them. Goldwater told delegates that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Goldwater lost to Johnson in an electoral landslide. But his campaign set the agenda for the GOP in the coming decades. Conservative activists in the 1970s built on Goldwater's brand of politics and pushed their party to the right.

Ronald Reagan -- whose speech for Goldwater in 1964 propelled him into the national spotlight -- used the same kind of rhetoric and tactics as Goldwater to win the presidency against President Carter in 1980. Reagan formed close ties to the conservative movement. Republicans who were closely allied to the conservative movement took control of Congress in 1994.

President George W. Bush entered office with the ambitions of changing direction and trying to build a broader electoral coalition for the GOP through "compassionate conservatism" based on his experience in Texas. But Bush instead pursued an electoral strategy whereby the GOP played to the base of the party, writing off moderates and independents, and focusing on turning out the vote among loyal voters.

While the strategy worked between 2002 and 2005, when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, the party has paid a heavy price in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Democrats regained control of Congress and then the White House.

Polls show that the public standing of Republicans has fallen dramatically. Sizable constituencies the GOP had hoped to attract -- including Hispanic voters -- have been moving steadily toward the Democratic Party and don't show signs of coming back. Indeed, Obama's selection of Sotomayor threatens to permanently secure that community's support for Democrats.

The threat that many Republicans perceive with an aggressive attack on Sotomayor is that they would simply aggravate these negative trends and lose anyway, given Democratic control of Congress and her credentials.

It is easy to envision the long-term damage that the GOP could incur from an increasingly diverse America watching white Republican senators attack the experienced Latino appointee of the first African American president, first by raising questions about whether this prize-winning student at two Ivy League universities is intelligent enough for the job and then by opening up a debate about affirmative action in America.

Republicans have an important choice to make, and Sotomayor is just the starting point: Do they want to be the party of Eisenhower or the party of Goldwater?

It might be that Republicans continue along the path that they have followed since the 1970s, using the Goldwater playbook and betting everything on the electoral strength of the right wing.

But Republicans might also take a second look at one of the more popular presidents of the post-WWII period, Dwight Eisenhower, who offered a very different vision of what the Republican Party could or should be. Indeed, Eisenhower's legacy might very well offer a building block for reconstructing their party.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

All About Barack ObamaSonia SotomayorAffirmative Action

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