Binders Full of Agendas

It’s a little strange that the big three cabinet announcements – State, Treasury, and Defense – have started a table-thumping discussion about gender inequality and the White House. The only job formerly held by a woman, now to be held by a man, is Secretary of State. Trading the 2008 Democratic primary runner-up for the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee makes a certain kind of bureaucratic sense. But those moves, and a photo that showed Obama talking to 10 male advisers and one female, have pissed off a diverse group of people.

You can divide the critics into the “strategists” and the “concern trolls.” Trolls first: There is an insatiable desire, in the hearts of Republicans, to shame Democrats when they give big jobs to white dudes. It happened when Obama chose Joe Biden for vice president. It happened on January 3, when the Washington Free Beacon became one of the first sites to publicize that “Obama and dudes” photo – five days before the New York Times story (by much-missedd former Slatester Annie Lowrey). On Twitter, conservatives have groused about the “hypocrisy” of Democrats, who made fun of Mitt Romney’s claim that he had “binders full of women” when he needed to make hires. Margaret Carlson, among other liberals, have run with that theme, comparing Obama’s cabinet to “Augusta National” and suggesting that he pull some Democratic women out of hard-won U.S. Senate seats to replace the dudes. (Opening up Claire McCaskill’s Senate seat for a 2014 special election would probably mean adding a new Republican to the upper house.)

It’s just a huge distraction. The reason “binders full of women” sounded risible was that Romney was asked this question: “In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?” He dodged the policy question and reminded moderator Candy Crowley that he’d personally tried to hire some women. Previously, Romney’s campaign had tried to deflect questions about contraceptive coverage and pay equity by asking everyone to get very angry at Hilary Rosen, who said that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life.” Tokenism and personalization have very, very little to do with the policies that make the average woman more likely to avoid unwanted pregnancy or keep her job when she decides to have a baby and needs maternity leave. Democrats made this point when they voted for male Violence Against Women co-sponsor Joe Biden instead of noted female politician Sarah Palin. And the utter lack of attention now paid to the VAWA holdup in Congress (no stories about it in the Washington Post’s print edition) is a sister to the concern trolling.

Next, the “strategists.” They’re playing a predictable but important role: They are elevating something the White House is vaguely aware of in to something that generates shame and bad headlines. They want to nudge women up the list for possible appointments. That makes sense!