In 1996 Bill Clinton nominated a Hispanic lawyer named Richard Paez to the U.S. Court of Appeals. But Senate Republicans wouldn’t grant Paez a hearing. And so Democrats–seizing an opportunity to depict the GOP as hostile to a fast-growing minority–played the race card from the bottom of the deck. “This is complete discrimination,” declared Democratic Senator Joseph Biden. “I want to say to Republicans,” condescended New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman, “you don’t have to be afraid…. They [Hispanics] are good lawyers and great judges.” And Tom Daschle was most vociferous of all. “They [Republicans] don’t want Richard Paez because he’s Hispanic,” charged the Senate Democratic leader before later exclaiming: “Viva Paez.” Conservative commentators were enraged. Of course Republicans didn’t oppose Paez because he’s Hispanic; they opposed him because he was too liberal. Once again, the Democrats proved that racial demagoguery is their stock and trade.
The preceding paragraph is untrue; Paez’s stalled nomination did not elicit the reaction described above. But it is untrue in a peculiar way–because its mirror image is occurring right now. President George W. Bush has nominated a Hispanic lawyer named Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Democrats have not granted him a hearing. And in response, last week Republican senators (specifically Rick Santorum, Pete Domenici, and Trent Lott) uttered the racially demagogic statements quoted above. And those conservative commentators who think crying racism demeans public debate? They haven’t said a word. In fact, for almost two years now, they have stayed silent as the GOP has embraced exactly the kind of identity politics they supposedly despise.
To hear conservatives tell it, there are two basic problems with identity politics. The first is that it undermines meritocracy by making identity the criteria for advancement rather than ability. That’s why the right flayed Clinton for requiring that his Cabinet “look like America.” The qualification for high office, conservatives insisted, should be experience and brains, not whether you fill some racial or gender slot.
But Bush brazenly violated that principle even before taking office. According to conservative color-blind logic, the Bush campaign should have allocated speaking slots at the 2000 GOP convention according to merit; it should have featured the most experienced and thoughtful Republicans, regardless of race or gender. What happened was virtually the opposite: Bush’s advisers trotted out an endless succession of black, Hispanic, and female unknowns–state representatives, lieutenant governors, and obscure members of Congress. Meanwhile, the people who really run the Republican Party remained out of sight–because they happen to be white men.
But few conservatives condemned the convention as an exercise in the “reverse racism” that they abhorred when practiced by Clinton. And in their acquiescence, they gave Bush a green light to apportion Cabinet positions based on race and ethnicity as well. When Bush put together his foreign policy team, conservatives proudly noted that in Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice he had found African Americans who merited their posts irrespective of their race. What they didn’t mention was that in domestic policy, nothing could have been further from the truth. In his picks for secretary of education and secretary of housing and urban development, Bush picked up where he left off at the Philadelphia convention, passing over Republicans with national and state experience to choose an African American (Rod Paige) and a Hispanic (Mel Martinez) with no experience beyond the local level. Just as conservative anti- affirmative-action logic would have predicted, these underqualified nominees have underperformed in their jobs. (When Bush pushed his education package through Capitol Hill last year, one top congressional aide told The New York Times that Paige was “not part of the discussion.”) Yet virtually no one on the right has uttered a word.
There is another problem with identity politics as well. According to conservatives, it doesn’t only undermine meritocracy; it breeds a victim mentality that stifles honest debate. And since President Bush took office, Republicans have liberally indulged that tendency as well.
Estrada is the worst case. Whether or not Senate Democrats should be delaying his confirmation hearings, it has nothing to do with race. In fact, the Democrats have been explicit about their strategy regarding Bush’s nominees. They’re holding hearings on the moderate nominees first to encourage Bush to nominate more centrists in the future. And they’re generally delaying votes on the most conservative ones. Since by all accounts Estrada is very conservative, his treatment (whether fair or not) is entirely color-blind. But that didn’t stop Republican Senators Lott, Santorum, Domenici, and Orrin Hatch from calling the Democrats racist.
And it’s not just Estrada. Time and again in the Bush era, conservatives have played victim politics in ways that would make Al Sharpton blush. When Democrats voted to prevent Mexican trucks from transporting goods throughout the United States, Trent Lott said it was because Democrats have “sort of an anti-Mexican or anti-Hispanic” attitude. When Democrats opposed John Ashcroft’s nomination as attorney general, Republican Senator Phil Gramm said he was being “mocked for holding a deeply held faith”; the Heritage Foundation’s Kay James, who testified on Ashcroft’s behalf, said he was the victim of “religious profiling.” Conservative victim politics reached their reducto ad absurdum this month during the fight over Charles Pickering’s nomination to be an appeals court judge, when National Review claimed that Pickering “was a target of convenience, being a white male Republican from Mississippi of a certain age.” In other words, Democrats were anti-Hispanic when they opposed Estrada, but anti-white when they opposed Pickering. Democrats have certainly indulged in their share of racial demagoguery over the years, but as far as I know, they have never managed to accuse the GOP of racism against whites and racism against minorities at the same time. In the annals of race-baiting, conservatives are breaking new ground.
Politically, the GOP’s embrace of identity politics isn’t hard to fathom. Given how few blacks and Hispanics support the GOP, the consequence of a principled Republican color-blindness would be overwhelmingly white conventions, overwhelmingly white Cabinets, and overwhelmingly white nominations to the federal bench. And in a country with an ever-diminishing percentage of whites, Republicans realize that’s dangerous. Racial preferences and racial demagoguery may be smart ways to assemble a more diverse coalition. And my guess is that’s why conservative commentators turn a blind eye–they’ve decided this is what Republicans need to do to compete. Fair enough, sometimes you make moral compromises in order to win. But if that’s the case, let’s hope that the next time the NAACP runs an ad implying that George W. Bush supports lynching, conservatives will have the decency to keep their outrage to themselves.