05/25/2005 09:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Conservatives Snatch Page From Thomas Play Book For Brown

The moment President Bush nominated California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown in 2003 to the Appeals court, civil rights, civil liberties and women’s groups relentlessly hammered her for her ultra conservative court opinions and rulings on abortion, tort reform, the death penalty, and affirmative action. They contended that she would wreak havoc on civil rights and civil liberties on the appeals bench.

Her confirmation was hopelessly stalled in the Senate with no sign that Senate Democrats would ever bring it to a floor vote. But then Congressional GOP conservatives hit on the ideal ploy to break the stalemate. They reached back and tore a page from the old playbook they used to get Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas confirmed in 1991. Their game plan was simple. They cast Thomas as a black man that had battled against segregation, and was now under fire from racist, elitist white Senate Democrats. The next part of the plan was to muddy his record of conservative activism, and mobilize black evangelicals and conservatives to back him.

Thomas followed the script to a tee He repeatedly harped on his hardscrabble upbringing, in a fatherless home in poor, backwash Pin Point, Georgia. This up from segregation bootstrap tale brought tears and praise from conservatives. The tale was designed to divide and confuse Thomas’s liberal and black opponents. Brown’s backers have repeatedly noted that she is the daughter of an Alabama sharecropper. Her rags to judicial riches tale are designed to touch a public nerve and divide and confuse her liberal and black opponents.

When Anita Hill tossed her incendiary accusation of sexual harassment against Thomas into the confirmation fray, it rammed the volatile elements of sex and race onto the capital and the nation’s table. An angry, indignant Thomas blurted out the eternally memorable line, ”This is something that not only supports but plays into the worst stereotypes about black men in this society.” It hit like a sledgehammer.

The strategy to play the race and sex card was not wholly his. Thomas’s chief backer on the Committee, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch turned the tables on Thomas’s opponents and urged him to make Hill’s attacks a racial issue. That could stir black anger over racial stereotyping, and put civil rights leaders on the defensive. Thomas’s confirmation was on the line and that was the last hope to save it. Polls taken the day after he accused Hill of racially degrading him showed that he had turned the tide.

Hatch dredged up a similar line to defend Brown. He claimed that her critics abhorred her not because of her judicial views but because she is a conservative black woman that has dared to stand up for her conservative convictions. Brown took the cue and called the attacks on her insulting and implied that she was being singled out because she is a black woman.

The Swift Boat Veterans, the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, conservative legal advocacy groups, and family groups, conservative columnists Thomas Sowell, and Robert Novak have harped on the same line. They lambasted Senate Democrats as bigots that are tormenting a black woman who had overcome segregation and poverty.

A crucial part of GOP conservative’s strategy to evoke sympathy for Brown is to mobilize black ministers and conservatives. They did the same with Thomas. The day after Hill made her incendiary charges of sexual harassment, a parade of black ministers held prayer vigils on the Capitol steps backing Thomas. And a group of black women cheered Thomas as he entered the Senate hearing room. The Traditional Values Coalition, headed by California minister, and conservative family values stalwart, Louis Sheldon, organized the rally. But the pro-Thomas rally served notice to the press, the Senators on the committee, civil rights leaders, and Democrats that many black ministers, long thought to be the bedrock of civil rights and social activism in black communities, were conservative, and backed Thomas’s stance on abortion and family values issues. They could be organized for conservative causes.

The black evangelicals are back for Brown. Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently corralled a group of leading black minister and staged a rally at a park near the Capitol to support Brown. Frist and the ministers proclaimed her a “legal hero” to black America and denounced the threatened filibuster by Senate Democrats. The aim again was to counter the fierce attacks on Brown by the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Bar Association. A black rally organizer branded the criticism of Brown by these groups as “partisan rhetoric.”

When the chips were down with Thomas, conservatives used race to trump politics. The black brother under attack theme helped narrowly put him over the top in the Senate and on the high court. Now it’s the black sister under attack theme with Brown. GOP conservatives hope their Thomas playbook plan will work with her too.