Earlier this year, while a New York Times story incited a huge controversy over the lack of women in President Obama‘s inner circle, a quieter diversity debate was being waged. In his first several selections for his second-term Cabinet, Obama had not picked a single African-American.
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio.), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, blasted the White House in interviews, while other members of the CBC privately fumed about what they viewed as another slap in the face: the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had had a group meeting with the president after the election, but not the CBC.
A few weeks later, Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, one of the CBC’s own members, was nominated by President Obama to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx was tapped to head the Department of Transportation.
Supreme Court ruling won’t change D.C. culture
The debate about women and minorities in the Cabinet illustrated a important dynamic in the debate over affirmative action, which will be reignited when the Supreme Court releases its latest ruling on the issue. Both parties, whatever their public statements on affirmative action, actively look to find and promote women and people of color, desperate, just like colleges and universities, to make themselves look like America.
And however the Supreme Court rules on university admissions systems that explicitly consider race, this affirmative action in politics is almost certain to continue.
Republicans, many of whom are officially against racial preferences as a matter of law, are particularly eager to illustrate diversity, after losing 80 percent of the non-white vote in 2012. Party strategists privately admit it’s very unlikely that the GOP will run two white men on the presidential ticket in 2016, which effectively guarantees one of the 12 non-white males who are Republican senators or governors will be the party’s nominee for president or vice-president.
While never said explicitly by GOP officials, the strong embrace by the Republican Party of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has much to do with the GOP’s need to have a key voice who represents the growing American Hispanic community.
GOP wants to rope in racial minorities
A report written by the Republican National Committee earlier this year specifically calls for the party to “create a program that is focused on recruiting and supporting African-American Republican candidates for office” and “hire field staff within Hispanic communities.”
Democrats have long supported affirmative action and diversity programs and are less shy about openly talking about them. Top Democratic activists plan to promote a female candidate heavily for vice-president in 2016 if Hillary Clinton does not run for the top of the ticket, and party officials would love to find a strong Hispanic candidate as well. If Clinton runs, the choices for her campaign staff will be closely scrutinized by black and Hispanic activists who want to make sure she has a diverse team that would enter the White House.
None of this diversity focus is new. While he was in office, George W. Bush urged the Supreme Court to strike down affirmative action in university admissions while at the same time explicitly making sure his Cabinet and top advisers were racially balanced. One of Bush’s top advisers, Dan Bartlett, told the Washington Post in 2004 ,”there has been an effort by the president to reach out and ensure that his staff and his team reflect the diversity of our country.” Bartlett argued the diversity of Bush’s top advisers, which included at the time Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and National Security Adviser Condi Rice, had been “under-reported” by the press and said Bush deserved more credit on the issue.
Since Obama’s election, Republicans have continued the practice of looking for minorities to fill key roles. In 2009, they selected Michael Steele as the chair of the Republican Party National Committee; as a party activist told me at the time, “It’s a very positive message for the country to have an African-American who is at the helm of the Republican Party.”
Last year, when Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) opted to step down, party officials publicly suggested it was an open question who would replace him. But it was clear almost from the beginning that Rep. Tim Scott, one of the only black Republican House members, was the obvious choice, and he was eventually selected.
Democrats face a similar challenge
On the Democratic side, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Obama were all publicly accused at various times of not having enough minorities or women in their inner circles during their presidential campaigns.
After he received more than 40 percent of his votes in 2012 from non-white Americans, Obama anticipated concerns about diversity in his Cabinet and expressed frustration he was criticized on this issue before he had even selected his full team, which not only includes Foxx and Watt, but also National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder and Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz.
“One of my highest priorities as an administration, particularly in my second term, because now I’m thinking about legacy, is to make sure that we are identifying talent from every walk of life, from every ethnic group, so that the next president will see how big a pool there is of talent out there, that can serve and wants to serve in a presidential administration,” Obama said in an interview with Univision.
He added, responding to a question that directly mentioned Latinos, “So we’re going to redouble our efforts to recruit talented and gifted Latinos that come from every walk of life. It comes from academia, it comes from elected officials. It comes from foundations and not-for-profits. Maybe some will come from the media.”
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr