Political expediency can make a sudden feminist out of anyone, apparently. There was former Romney advisor Dan Senor on Twitter last week, expressing his distaste for potential Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel: "Isn't it strange that the President dropped Rice but is dug in over #Hagel? Especially when he can nominate the highly qualified #Flournoy?"
Senor's main implication was that Barack Obama was suddenly showing his true anti-Israel cards by having "dug in" on someone he hasn't even nominated yet. The secondary suggestion, what with the mention of "highly qualified" along with the fact that both Susan Rice and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy are female, seemed to be trying to beat Obama with a stick his campaign successfully wielded against Romney's: Diversity.
It's an unusual attack line for a Republican, "binders full of women" aside, but after losing an election in which the GOP alienated many women and people of color, proffering a female alternative you dislike a little less scores political points against the guy who beat you. But if the president's top cabinet picks end up being a bunch of older white men, as they may well be, we'll probably be hearing more of it from Republicans. (Not every right-winger was on board, of course: "Let's hear no more nonsense about 'diversity,'" fumed Charles C. W. Cooke at The National Review, in response to a Buzzfeed report that Flournoy's stock was rising.)
On December 14, after Rice was out of the running for the State job, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked, "The president is losing someone who would have brought diversity to his cabinet. So how important is it to the president now that his cabinet, with her out of the running, reflects the sort of diversity that we see throughout the rest of the country? And is that going to affect his decision-making process?"
Carney replied, "I think the president has always believed that in order to achieve the highest level of excellence in his cabinet, and more broadly, in his administration, that diversity is important. I would note that Ambassador Rice remains in his cabinet and remains a valued advisor on foreign policy matters, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations."
That day, the AP reported, without attribution, that she might someday be named national security advisor. A few days later, despite the fact that White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew is widely expected to take over for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Bloomberg reported that "two people familiar with the matter" had said that the chief executive officer of American Express, Kenneth Chenault, had been approached by the White House about joining the cabinet, "possibly as Treasury secretary." (Chenault is African American.) And Flournoy's name keeps bubbling up. Even if none of these people end up in high-ranking positions, floating their names appears to be a minor inoculation against accusations Obama's running a bit of a boys' club -- something this White House has been accused of in the past, and has denied.
Meanwhile, there are signs that Congressional Democrats want to keep up the message that they're the party of diversity. Last week, in a surprise move, Sen. Patrick Leahy gave up his spot as the incoming chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who just happened to be the most senior senator without a committee chair position -- and the most senior woman in the Senate. The machinations happened behind the scenes -- the shuffle having been precipitated by the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye -- but Leahy took to Twitter to note the historic nature of the appointment: “Congratulations to my friend @SenatorBarb who will be 1st woman to chair Senate Appropriations Committee. She’ll be great (already is).” And Mikulski's fellow Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin noted in his statement, "Senator Barb has been shattering glass ceilings her entire career."
In the Nancy Pelosi-led House Democratic caucus, the touting of diversity has been even more manifest. Not long after the list of Republican House committee chairs came out without a single woman or person of color on the list, leaving John Boehner to hastily make Rep. Candice S. Miller chair of a minor administrative committee she hadn't even sat on, Pelosi held a press conference. She held up a colorful photo to praise "the beautiful diversity of our caucus" and added, "Our caucus looks like America. So do our ranking members." Pelosi told Roll Call, “One of the messages it sends, if you’re a woman, if you’re gay or if you’re a minority, you can have the comfort of saying: ‘Somebody like me has a seat at the table. Somebody who understands my aspirations, my hopes and dreams.’”
Despite the numbers being in the Democrats' favor, this required some maneuvering. The only Democratic woman on the powerful Ways and Means committee, Shelley Berkley, is leaving at the end of this session. But then Rep. Chris Van Hollen stepped aside, despite having the seniority, to make room for three Democrats who lost their spots when Republicans took over: Reps. Danny Davis, Linda Sanchez, and Allyson Schwartz -- who just happen to be two women (one Latina) and a black man.
So far, this looks like a lot of theatrics and photo ops. But it matters, partly for the reasons Pelosi cited. Flournoy, for example, would show the country -- not to mention the women rising through the ranks in the military despite discrimination and disproportionate risk of sexual assault -- that Defense is not just a man's job, even as she brings her own qualifications to the table. But there's something here beyond modeling or counting or historic progress, though they're important. It's also about being forced to think beyond the default candidate, the one who looks like what you think authority looks like (like this, maybe) so you don't miss something important that could be at the table. That's something our black president -- whose opponents continually try to undermine his authority -- might remember he knows something about.