President Barack Obama knows how to avoid a fight and still do what he thinks is right. The media and conservative activists might be spoiling for a Supreme Court nomination battle, but the choice of Circuit Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor to fill a high court vacancy is a classic Obama decision that makes the chances of political smooth sailing a near lock. Obama was clearly inspired by his selection, but he just as obviously kept an eye on the politics of his pick.
Assuming nothing surfaces in Sotomayor's background that causes controversy, expect her to be seated when the court opens for its new term in October, after thorough confirmation hearings that will seem more like a lovefest than a legal firing squad. By both design and luck, Obama faces a Supreme Courtpick process that has been drained of the tension and combat that has characterized such moments in the past several decades. (Read "Four Enduring Myths About Supreme Court Nominees.")
The fundamentals of the environment in which Obama has made his choice account for much of this reality. Democrats have a solid majority in the Senate, and Obama is seeking to replace one reliably liberal vote with another, meaning the balance of the court will not shift, lowering the stakes. And the social issues that used to fire up the right when it came to judicial disputes have lost some of their power, with the economy in the dumps and younger citizens drifting toward the left.
The pick itself will also minimize friction. Yes, conservative activists and some Republican Senators will use a few of Sotomayor's more liberal statements and opinions to try to rally their base, revive the Republican Party and raise money.
But Obama has chosen a mainstream progressive, rather than a wild-eyed liberal. And he has chosen a rags-to-riches Hispanic woman. Her life story is inspirational a political consultant's dream. Since she is certain to be confirmed, there are plenty of smart conservatives who will, by midday Tuesday, have done the political cost-benefit analysis: at a time when Republicans are trying to demonstrate that their party can reach beyond rich white men, what mileage is there in doing anything but celebrating such a historic choice?
The White House plans to take the high road in selling Sotomayor to the public. They will point to her résumé, her previous Senate confirmation and her impeccable credentials to make a case for her. Obama's aides are so confident in the political pluses of this pick that some of them would welcome attempts by fringe conservatives to come after her. A few would even like liberals to attack her as insufficiently committed to their causes.
But unless Administration background checkers failed to find what they needed to know about Sotomayor's history, those spoiling for a battle are not going to get one. Most Republicans will squelch their first instinct to go to the mattresses and instead follow the President's pathway: avoid a fight.