Thanks a lot, John McCain. With his selection of an unknown, two-year female governor as his running mate, he has just ensured that the diversity racket will be an essential component of presidential politics forever more. Had the 44-year-old Sarah Palin, whose greatest political accomplishment before being elected Alaska’s governor in 2006 was serving as mayor of Wasilla (population 9,780), been named Stanley, she would have had exactly zero chance of ending up in the Oval Office in the next four years. But from now on, any presidential ticket that consists solely of white males—no matter their qualifications—will likely be dead in the water.
Of course, Democrats have been playing the identity-politics game to the hilt this election cycle; it’s what they do. And it will be amusing to watch them twist themselves into knots to avoid criticizing the Palin pick for what it is: a diversity ploy. As short-term political strategy, the Palin selection has diabolical appeal. Prevented from stating the obvious—Palin was chosen because she was a woman—the Democrats will instead have to seize on her lack of experience. They are right to do so, but then they have to explain why Barack Obama is so much more qualified for the top of the ticket, let alone the number two spot.
Washington Republicans have hardly kept themselves free of race- and gender-based decision making: one can think of many cabinet members and judicial nominations made on these grounds. But now they’ve gone all the way and introduced irrelevant chromosome considerations into the presidential race—the most important political choice in the land. And they have lost any standing to criticize Democrats for playing the race and gender cards.
Palin herself drew on hackneyed feminist bromides at her first rally as vice presidential nominee, quoting no less an establishment diversocrat than Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s run had “left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America,” Palin said in Dayton, Ohio, yesterday. “It turns out that the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”
I thought that conservatives scoffed at the idea that American society systematically blocks accomplished women from advancement. But within less than an hour of the vice-presidential announcement yesterday morning, the diversity epidemic had spread rapidly in the Republican political machinery, including among analysts for whom I have only the highest respect. Talk-show host Laura Ingraham enthused about Palin’s identity profile: “A lot of women are calling in excited,” Ingraham said. “The women of America will see that she might be the first woman vice president.” Palin’s identity-based advantages go beyond gender, in Ingraham’s view: “Palin has an Eskimo husband, a Down’s Syndrome son, an Iraq-bound son.” CNBC host Larry Kudlow echoed Ingraham’s assessment: “This is a breakthrough for the stodgy Republican party.”
Republican operatives are also promoting the inevitable family bathos. A Republican consultant on National Public Radio pushed the fact that Palin had declared her Down’s syndrome son “perfection.” Other pundits noted that “she loves her family.” Many people—including Democrats—feel the same about their own families. Palin’s motherly dedication is admirable—though with a 4-month-old infant, and a disabled one at that, to care for, this may not be the best time to audition for the second-toughest job in the world. But her maternal feelings are irrelevant to her executive acumen and knowledge of economic and geopolitical issues. Palin may have those attributes in spades, but if so, let’s hear about them, not her domestic relations.
Presidential politics, and especially vice-presidential selections, have always been driven by sectionalism, poll-driven voter segmentation and demographics, and economic stratification. But race and gender are different than whether someone comes from a Sun Belt state or can appeal to disaffected auto workers. Race and gender are almost never a valid job qualification. Yet they have taken over in field after field—whether in the hiring of lawyers and selection of judges, in the choice of books and art to which students will be exposed from the moment that they step into a classroom, in the composition of police and fire departments, or in the selection of corporate boards. This tendency must be fought, not capitulated to.
True, Palin brings traditional political strengths—such as gun enthusiasm and a pro-life record—to the ticket. Her fight against self-dealing in Alaskan politics counters the inside-the-Beltway corruption that damaged the Republicans in the 2006 elections. And her stance on drilling for Alaskan oil admirably bolsters the Republican Party platform on energy issues. But admit it, fellow conservatives: none of these attributes pushed her over the top. Your enthusiasm for her is driven in large measure by the fact that the McCain camp has beaten the Democrats at their own game, and in so doing, driven Obama’s moment of glory off the wires.
Republican strategists openly hope that Palin will attract disaffected Hillary Clinton voters, who believe that they had a right to a woman in the White House. There are, alas, many women who are pathetic enough to put gender above politics, for whom a candidate’s stand on substantive issues matters less than her reproductive plumbing. But just because such voters are out there doesn’t mean that the GOP can cater to them without permanently compromising its principles.
The process has already begun. On Saturday, Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “As a 44-year-old woman Mrs. Palin brings desperately needed diversity to the Republican ticket.” Wow. So now gender (and even age?!) diversity is not just needed, but “desperately” needed. Republicans might as well hire Eleanor Smeal and Jesse Jackson as party chairmen (oops! I mean “chairpeople”).
Ironically, Barack Obama stood up to the diversity imperative in selecting Joe Biden as his running mate. And his nomination speech last Thursday was notable for the minimal use he made of the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and for his barely noticeable allusion to his race. It was too much to hope for that the diversity agenda would recede into the background of his own candidacy—his supporters and the media will never allow that to happen. Nevertheless, it’s a sad day when Republicans decide to match the Democratic predilection for chromosomal consciousness, since there will be no turning back.