The GOP goes "liberal"

J.C. Watts? Jennifer Dunn? Politicians with such multiple defects ordinarily would be handed House leadership only after Saddam Hussein and O.J. Simpson had turned the job down.

By Joe Conason
Published November 17, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Having made a quick meal of Newt Gingrich, the Republican cannibals are gazing hungrily at the rest of the House leadership. The speaker's plump, white carcass apparently didn't satisfy their appetites, and more than a few members seem to think the head of Majority Leader Dick Armey might be a tasty side dish, followed perhaps by House Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner for dessert. But even more appalling than the spectacle of this conservative blood feast is the table talk among the diners, who speak between bites of their brethren about such uplifting ideas as "diversity," "inclusion" and "a new face that reflects a lot more of America."

What we are witnessing is the Republican version of affirmative action -- although that phrase remains taboo among these restless savages.
But just because they don't want to call what they're doing affirmative action doesn't mean that it isn't affirmative action. The blustering Armey is being challenged by Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a Washington state Republican whose current rhetoric leans rather heavily on that "new face" theme. Her claim to leadership has little to do with any achievement on her part, and she isn't even particularly well-liked by her colleagues. Moreover, Dunn is slightly less fanatical in her anti-abortion sentiments than most of the Republican caucus, which probably offends many of the members whose votes she is seeking. The only apparent rationale for Dunn's attempt to replace the treacherous Texan is that she is a she.

Two faces down the totem pole, Boehner is trying to fend off Rep. J.C. Watts, one of two former football players in the Oklahoma delegation. (The other being religious right-winger Steve Largent, who also aspires to Armey's job.) Having only served a single term in the House, Watts possesses even fewer qualifications for a leadership post than Dunn. On Nov. 16, the New York Times' front page featured a long exposé of Watts' dubious behavior as a utility regulator in his home state, where he seems to have engaged in a rather blatant shakedown of a telephone company lobbyist. He also failed to pay his income taxes on time, almost went bankrupt and "forgot" to report his wife's income in 1996.

What the Times left out is that Watts, one of the most outspoken moralists in Congress, also happens to be the father of two children out of wedlock. At some point during the Lewinsky scandal, he unwittingly described his own behavior while criticizing the president. "Morality," he pontificated, "is what you do when nobody is looking." A politician with these multiple defects would ordinarily be considered for House leadership only after Saddam Hussein and O.J. Simpson had turned the job down. But J.C. has something in common with O.J. that has suddenly made him a viable candidate. That's right, he's African-American.

And as pundit Robert Novak, a ferocious opponent of affirmative action, mentioned the other day, "A lot of people would like to have an African-American in the [House] leadership."

Don't fret, though: The conference chair is a relatively powerless position, a token job, so to speak.
Everyone knows that conservative doctrine forbids the awarding of jobs, contracts and other emoluments on the basis of race or sex. Such discriminatory policies are the province of unprincipled Democrats, who seek to balkanize the nation with an ethnic and sexual spoils system, thereby degrading constituency groups with tokenism and reduced self-esteem and punishing innocent bystanders simply for being white males. Or so we have been told for many years by self-righteous Republicans, who never uttered the word "diversity" without sneering and mocked the president for saying he wanted a government that "looked like America."

Actually, the Republican opposition to affirmative action, misguided as it may be, did have an appealing aspect. Who can argue against the ideal of a nation where all are judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin? And even if the GOP adopted this principle as a racial "wedge issue" to win elections, this still represented some slight progress from the old "Southern strategy" of opposing civil rights altogether.
Now, however, after losing seats they expected to win, the Republicans have embarked on an even more cynical course. Glancing around the room on election night, they noticed that their spokesmen all looked the same: pudgy, pale, drawling and male. The obvious solution was to promote a female and a black guy, and there weren't too many of those available. (In fact, Watts is the only black Republican in Congress, so despite his flaws he will have to do.) Nobody has dared to suggest that Dunn and Watts are the best candidates available, and it is yet entirely possible that neither of them will win. If they do succeed, however, it will be because the Republicans have discovered the virtues of diversity.

This is not the first time, of course, that Republican leaders have discarded the cherished principle of colorblindess for the sake of political expediency. The most blatant example was the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Nobody, not even Thomas himself, could conceivably have believed that he was better qualified for the highest court than any other lawyer in the country. What made him the preferred candidate to fill the seat vacated by
Thurgood Marshall was his blackness, which ultimately disarmed Democratic opposition to him, and, ironically, his willingness to oppose race-conscious remedies to past discrimination.

There lies the truly obnoxious element of Republican affirmative action, which rewards a few opportunistic individuals on the basis of race and sex in order to advance a reactionary agenda. As the strategists of the right expand their consciousness, who knows what's next? Perhaps after the Republicans lose control of Congress altogether, some ambitious conservative will come out of the closet and declare that he's really gay -- but opposes gay rights. In the meantime, let's hear no more about that pure conservative meritocracy, OK?

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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