Some, such as the Washington Post today, have argued that a possible Gonzales nomination forces the President to choose between two goals--making the Court more conservative vs. "reaching out" to Hispanics on behalf of the Republican Party.
This seems to reflect the conventional wisdom. With respect to the latter, is there any evidence that Supreme Court nominations actually result in any political gain? For instance, is there any evidence that Reagan's appointment of O'Connor has actually made women more likely to vote Republican? Or that Clarence Thomas's appointment helped Bush with black voters? Or that Scalia's appointment as the first Italian-American increased the Italian-American vote for Republicans? (I'm actually serious about this one--some of the Nixon tapes reveal that Nixon considered appointing an Italian-American, Polish-American (for obvious reasons, Nixon's mention of "a Pole" sticks in my head), or similar "ethnic" American to the Court for these political reasons). Or that appointing the promised southerner Powell, had any positive impact for the Republicans in the South?
I've genuinely looked for empircial evidence on this, but have never been able to find any evidence. I would welcome any info that anyone can provide.
My instinct is that these political calculations are largely invalid when it comes to the Supreme Court. I just don't think the public's thinking about Supreme Court Justices run this way. 65% of Americans can't even name one Justice (although of those who can be named, O'Connor and Thomas are the two most-frequently named). I am skeptical that the political party that appoints a "first" sees any long-lasting political effect.
My perception is that there is not much political gain available here. So to return to the purported political "tradeoff" mentioned at the outset, the President's choice here seems to be between a tangible political loss with conservatives versus an ephemeral or even imaginary political gain with Hispanics. Not to mention that such an appointment would leave the President potentially vulnerable to losing political support by being attacked as "anti-woman" for replacing the "first woman Justice" with a man.
Of course, this is just the political tradeoff, leaving aside the more important issue of who is the best person available. Recall that when last confronted with a similar monumental choice, President Bush ignored the conventional wisdom when he chose Dick Cheney as his running mate. In that choice, I think that Bush probably was aware that even though the conventional wisdom was that there is all kinds of political calculations in picking a VP, it is my understanding that there is little empirical support for the proposition that the VP choice makes much of a political difference.
If anyone has any empirical evidence on the political effect of prior "firsts" please send it my way.