The All American skin game

Posted: Jan 28, 2005 12:00 AM

The Condoleezza Rice nomination was a sorry spectacle, but not in the way everyone is saying. Frankly, I think Sen. Barbara Boxer was completely within her rights - as rude and as typically middle-brow as she was - to criticize Condoleezza Rice. Cabinet appointments are a time-honored way of expressing opposition to presidential policies.

No, the sorry spectacle is the grand fog of racial confusion that the Rice hearings illuminated. On one side we have some Republicans and conservatives accusing Democrats of some veiled form of racism or sexism for giving Rice a hard time. On the other side we some Democrats denouncing Republicans for even bringing Rice's race and sex into the discussion. This is all about policy, they insist. In other words, nonsense all around.

How'd we get here? Well, that's a long story. But let's start with Bush's victory in 2000, which presented a real dilemma for Democrats who'd spent the 1990s playing the race card like it was an expiring coupon. It was Bill Clinton who really transformed the rules of the game when it comes to diversity-mongering. The most obvious symbol of this enlightened thinking was the famous declaration that his cabinet would "look like America." This meant that "diversity" would be achieved once you've appointed a crayon box of different colors (and sexes, though that ruins the metaphor).

The cynical brilliance behind this thinking was that it allowed Democrats to accuse Republicans of being racists when they were really just inconvenient. We were told that making a big deal about the illegal donations to Clinton's campaign from Asian sources - as well as charges of espionage at Los Alamos - were driven by Republican bigotry toward Asians. Various intellectual types claimed that impeachment was really thinly veiled bigotry against "the first black president" or against "sexual dissidents" of one kind or another. Stop laughing, I'm serious.

When John Ashcroft was still a senator, he famously fought the nomination of the Judge Ronnie White to the federal bench. Liberals immediately accused Ashcroft of racism. Sen. Patrick Leahy declared that we had "reverted to a time in (our) history when there was a color test on nominations."

Having been shellacked by this approach to politics for so long, many Republicans have bought into it. At the 2000 Republican Convention the fat old white guys were kept under raps as the Bush campaign rolled out a parade of speakers who "looked like America." As president, Bush shrewdly - and cynically - appointed as many qualified conservative blacks, Hispanics and women as he could find. After all, why not? If the standard created by Democrats is that ideological diversity is meaningless, and only skin color and gender count, your best shot at putting conservatives on the court is to find blacks, Hispanics and women who agree with your philosophy.

Oh right, there is one good reason not to do that: hypocrisy. If you believe in a colorblind society - as Republicans allegedly do - such litmus tests are a violation of principle. But let's put that thought aside for a moment.

Bush's strategy was greeted with moderate success at first. Then Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle declared in May 2001, "I'm pleased that the White House has chosen to work with us on the first group of nominations." Even the hyperpartisan Sen. Leahy said he was encouraged. The New York Times welcomed Bush's nominees as "eclectic and conciliatory." Why the warm welcome? Well, largely because over half the nominees were blacks, Hispanics or women. Peter Beinart of the New Republic caught on to what was happening at the time, warning that Bush had taken the "specious logic" of liberal multiculturalism "and driven a truck through it."

Eventually the Democrats came to the same realization - and followed Beinart's hypercynical advice and took dead aim at the minority nominees. Miguel Estrada, for example, a very well-qualified Hispanic whom the Bush team hoped to groom for a Supreme Court seat, was singled out by Democrats because he was a Hispanic and therefore so much more threatening. In response, Republicans went batty and played exactly the same game the Democrats had played. Sen. Pete Domenici, for example, deadpanned: "I want to say to Democrats . you don't have to be afraid. . They (Hispanics) are good lawyers and great judges." Sen. Rick Santorum called Democratic policy "complete discrimination."

And so here we are today. Different players, same game. Republicans bought the racial logic of Democrats for partisan gain - and it worked. Democrats abandoned the same logic when it stopped working for them. Both sides should be ashamed of themselves.

But, as a conservative who actually believes in color-blindness, I have to say that the Democrats deserve the lion's share of ridicule in this mess. Yes, Republicans are being hypocritical, but they aren't putting their hypocrisy into law. Democrats may claim a sudden conversion to colorblindness, but they still reflexively claim any opposition to affirmative action is ipso facto evidence of racism.

And, more to the point: They started it.