In 1980, a presidential candidate pledged to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court.
“It is time for a woman to sit among our highest jurists,” said Ronald Reagan, and in 1981, he kept his promise by nominating Sandra Day O’Connor.
In 2008, John McCain made history by choosing the party’s first female vice presidential candidate. Announcing his choice of Sarah Palin, he said he was “especially proud to say in the week we celebrate the anniversary of women’s suffrage” that she was “a devoted wife and a mother of five.”
From the criticisms of Joe Biden’s choices for his Cabinet and other senior positions, you might think that Democrats had a monopoly on what is condemned as “identity politics” — selecting people because they represent specific groups (racial, ethnic, gender and sexual orientation) rather than because of their qualifications. But both parties have made a point of highlighting their efforts to expand representation beyond white men.
When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Donald Trump promised to appoint a woman to fill the vacancy, and nobody objected. At her confirmation hearing Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, welcomed Amy Coney Barrett as “a fellow woman, a fellow mom, a fellow Midwesterner.”
But when Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate, he was accused of elevating someone underqualified for the job. It was alleged that he chose her only because she checked so many boxes, being Black, Asian American and female. One critic lamented that Biden had not “searched the entire adult population and determined she was the best person for the job.” Like that’s unusual.
Never mind that Harris had 16 years of experience in elective office at the local, state and federal level, or that she had enough political skills and substantive heft to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. Never mind that among the credentials cited for the pathetically unprepared Palin was — I’m not making this up — that she knew “how to properly field-dress a moose.”
How many vice presidential candidates have been chosen strictly for their brains and experience? Age, religion and state of origin have all been regarded as reasonable criteria. Mike Pence’s chief asset was that he could appeal to an important constituency: white evangelical Christians. Palin was not the first who didn’t qualify purely on merit. Anyone remember Dan Quayle? Or Spiro Agnew?
As for the Cabinet, Biden would have to make a strenuous effort to find appointees less qualified than many of Trump’s. Rex Tillerson, picked for secretary of state, had no diplomatic background. Ditto for U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley.
Barack Obama’s first energy secretary, Steven Chu, had a Nobel Prize in physics. Trump’s, Rick Perry, had a bachelor’s degree in animal science. Ben Carson, an African American neurosurgeon, was tapped to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development even though he had no expertise in housing, aside from living in it.
Doubts have been raised about Susan Rice, a Black woman chosen to head Biden’s Domestic Policy Council despite a background almost entirely in foreign and security affairs. But Biden pointed out, accurately, that she “knows government inside and out” and “is among our nation’s most senior and experienced government leaders.” Not to mention that she worked with him in the White House and earned his confidence.
Washington Examiner columnist Michael Barone insists that “among the public, if not in the press, most people care more about policy than ethnicity, more about competence than ticket-balancing.” Easy for a peevish white guy to say. But he shouldn’t fret. Biden’s appointees will be appreciably more competent than the people they replace.
It’s true that Biden has taken care to stock his administration with women, African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, a Native American and an openly gay man. But what’s wrong with including groups that have always been underrepresented?
“Identity politics is often a euphemism for ‘shrill minority voices I don’t like,’” says Jonathan Blanks, a Black scholar at the centrist Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. “People experience America differently. Including them is valuable for understanding what is wrong and how it needs to be changed.”
Conservatives say they long for a time when such differences as race, sexual orientation and gender will be irrelevant. They fail to understand that it will happen only after diversity in leadership is so commonplace that it is barely noticed. When that happy day arrives, some people will owe Biden an apology.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.