Politics & Policy

Does Dick Durbin Believe that Only White Males Can Bear Public Scrutiny?

Senator Dick Durbin (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
“The content of her character”? How quaint! When Democrats look at Loretta Lynch, all they see is her skin color.

With a dull and dispiriting predictability, the insinuations have begun to fly on Capitol Hill. Lamenting that Barack Obama’s pick for attorney general has not yet been confirmed, Senator Dick Durbin told the press this morning that her critics were almost certainly motivated by bigotry. “Loretta Lynch,” Durbin contended, “the first African-American woman nominated to be attorney general, is asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar.” In taking this ugly road, Durbin has joined in with Representative George Kenneth Butterfield, who argued yesterday that race was a “a major factor in the reason for this delay”; Representative Marcia Fudge, who suggested that “there is some racial bias” at play; and the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill, who proposed that “women are watching, that African-American women are watching,” and that neither of them would like what they were seeing.

Elsewhere, the gender card has been played with abandon. Last week, a journalist covering Hillary Clinton’s disastrous post-Emailgate press conference asked Clinton whether she would have been spared impertinent questions about her rule-breaking if she had been a man. On Twitter, Yahoo News’s Garance Franke-Ruta pondered with starry eyes whether Clinton’s decision to avoid “the rules (re: email) is also a core part of her message (re: being 1st female president).” On television, meanwhile, the comedian John Fugelsang submitted that the present contretemps was the obvious product of “sexism” and took aim at the mean and misogynistic “adjectives” that the media has used to question Clinton’s role in the attack on the embassy at Benghazi. “I never realized how sexist this country was,” Fugelsang whined, “until Hillary became first lady.”

Because they regard themselves as the unimpeachable champions of American progress, it is unlikely that Durbin & Co. will recognize just how acutely this mindset damages their cause. But damage their cause it unquestionably does. As Aesop taught us in his “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” dramatic claims eventually have to be backed up with demonstrable facts or they will begin to invite indifference and ridicule. The sins of America’s past are real, and they are often overlooked by those who would prefer to talk about something else. And yet, in the political realm at least, the charges of “racist” and “sexist” have become so ubiquitous that it is becoming difficult for most listeners to determine when they are legitimate and when they are opportunistic. Jim Crow involved the systematic subjugation of an entire race of people; Loretta Lynch is seeing her nomination delayed because the two main parties in Washington disagree as to what constitutes the best way forward. If both these occurrences are to be described in exactly the same language — indeed, if the two are to be directly compared — our historical and linguistic comprehension will eventually become damaged beyond repair. Then what?

The political implications of such gratuitousness are grave, too. The last time Dick Durbin attempted to turn the Loretta Lynch fight into a small-scale relitigation of the civil-rights struggle, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina took him adroitly to task, noting aloud that “the vote for the attorney general is a vote for the attorney general” and reminding his colleagues that the goal here is “to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” The present debate, Scott recorded, “is a conversation about competence, and qualifications,” and an attempt to determine “who’s best to serve our country.” It is not a deliberation over the general suitability of black women.

Implicit in Scott’s asseveration, I’d venture, was a dogged insistence that it will not do to treat would-be public officials differently on account of their immutable characteristics — and, indeed, that to do so is insulting to those who have been historically mistreated. Loretta Lynch, Scott seemed to be saying, must not be waved through simply because she is a black woman, but must be received by the Senate exactly as anybody else would be. By these lights, we might also infer that he would contend that Hillary Clinton cannot be allowed to play by different rules simply because she is a woman, and that Barack Obama must not be spared harsh criticism because he is the first black president. If you want the job, Scott suggested, you must play the usual game. No hindrances, no favors.

Naturally, I agree with Scott. Indeed, if the republic is to continue functioning properly, we will have to insist upon our right to judge all public officials by the same lights, regardless of their nature or their circumstances. But if this is the case, then what should we make of Durbin — a man who appears to be making precisely the opposite case? As far as I can see, Durbin considers all opposition to Lynch to be out of bounds, and all her critics’ explanations to be false — a rather dangerous position, which if taken to its logical conclusion would provide the public less with an excuse to fill the halls of power with the historically underrepresented and more with an unfortunate incentive to avoid hiring minorities for public-service jobs. Provided that Senator Scott gets his way, and American political life is as color-blind as can be, nobody should care one whit about a candidate’s racial makeup. If Durbin’s view prevails, however — if, that is, the racially obsessed manage to turn all of our legitimate political fights into witless spats about race and gender — we will have little choice but to worry.

Why? Well, because if the nomination of each and every minority candidate is to be accompanied by cynical special pleading and scurrilous accusation, it will become downright impossible for us to scrutinize those candidates efficiently. Clearly, it is unreasonable to ask a free people to choose between their established political processes and the success of boundary-breaking candidates, and it is patently ridiculous to invite Americans to decide between basic governmental transparency and the personal ambitions of would-be public figures. Should we follow Tim Scott’s example, we will not have to make any such distinctions: Instead, we can merely proceed as normal, and choose the right people for each job — whatever their color, gender, sexuality, or what you will. If we follow Dick Durbin’s model, however, and we demand extraordinary treatment for people who are more than capable of standing on their own two feet, we will run the risk that the public will throw up its hands in frustration and mutter under its breath, “Enough with all this vitriol, next time we’ll take the boring white guy instead.” Which one is the “progressive,” again?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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