Friday, April 15, 2011

Is Obama an "Affirmative Action Baby"?

I’ve always admired Mickey Kaus for, among other things, his candor. He has the fortitude to say arguably true things out loud that more conventional liberals won’t even admit to thinking. I think liberalism would be a lot better off if there were a lot more people like Kaus in the liberal community.

Yet I still did a double take when I read his comments about a Jay Cost post (on which I've commented here) about Obama’s political ineptitude (my emphasis):
“Cost doesn’t go into why Obama managed to get to the top of politics without being all that good at it. The answer is distressingly obvious: Obama’s the biggest affirmative action baby in history. When other pols are trying, failing, learning, while climbing up the middle rungs of the ladder, he got a pass.”
I’m sure that Kaus isn’t the first person, even the first liberal, to whom the thought that candidate Obama was an “affirmative action baby” has occurred. At a time when affirmative action is still so hotly contested, that thought is virtually irresistible. I’d be shocked if it didn’t cross Hillary Clinton’s mind early in 2008 even though, under slightly different circumstances, a lot of people would surely have been thinking the same thing about her presidential candidacy.

Yet that doesn’t make Kaus’s candor admirable in this case because it’s misdirected. I say this not because, as a supporter of affirmative action, I’m reluctant to give aid and comfort to the enemy. We all know that actual affirmative action policies invariably give advantages to comparatively privileged minorities who neither need the help nor deserve it as some sort of compensation. Giving such people an arguably unfair leg up in the competition for valuable credentials is a genuine cost that has to be weighed against affirmative action’s social benefits in any sober evaluation of it as a public policy.

But why do we even entertain the notion that the leg up is unfair? Think about how affirmative action operates in admissions to prestigious academic institutions. In that context it, like legacy admissions, puts a thumb on the scale that deprives people with higher high school grades and SAT scores of a place. It’s easy to sympathize with the complaint of a person from a modest social station who had to go to a less prestigious college, or couldn’t go to college at all, because a minority candidate took the spot that would otherwise have been his.  It makes some sense to say that he was a more deserving candidate as long as “deserving” means something like “more likely to excel in college.” We take “meritocratic” standards like SAT scores and high school grades seriously in college admissions because they’re highly correlated with academic success.

Presidential politics isn’t like that.  There are no comparable meritocratic standards for choosing a candidate around to be displaced by affirmative action. The only credentials that matter in properly democratic elections are the ones that matter to voters. And, for good reason, voters tend to be not all that impressed by the things that pundits think entitled a person to "serious" presidential consideration.

Take “experience,” the credential that candidate Obama lacked most conspicuously. By all accounts it matters in the presidential selection process inasmuch as, all other things being equal, having more experience in elected office makes a presidential candidate more attractive to most voters. And that’s as it should be since a longer resume generates a larger data set against which to test predictions about what kind of president a candidate is likely to be.

Yet, by all accounts, length of service in public office is a lot weaker a predictor of presidential success than SAT scores and high school grades are of academic success. Can you really blame voters for not thinking that the fact that John McCain and Joe Biden spent a lot more, and Hillary Clinton and John Edwards spent a little more, time bloviating in the Senate than Obama would make any of them a better president?

That’s not to say that Obama’s race didn’t help him get elected. In light of this country’s racial history, a lot of voters understandably jumped at the chance to elect an African-American president, not because they thought his race would make him a better president, but because having an African-American president would be a good thing for the country. If you ask me, there weren't many better reasons for voting for Obama instead of his closest Democratic competitors. Would it ever occur to you that the people running against him ever had an intelligible grievance like someone who lost a place in the college of his choice because of affirmative action?


Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis - a bit shocking but interesting and very thought provoking.

Anonymous said...

Nice blog with some interesting posts. I found it because Legal Insurrection linked it.

In this case, I think there are some parallels between college admissions and Presidential elections that you missed. You say "giving people an unfair leg up in the competition for *valuable credentials* is a genuine cost." MSNBC reports that in 2008, Time put Obama (face or name) on the cover 25 times, while McCain was on there 4 times. Is that not a "valuable credential"? You argue that there is no admissions committee in an election and that is all democratic and up to the voters, but even the minority of voters who are well informed get their information filtered through an admissions committee, commonly known as the NYT. Evan Thomas of Newsweek estimated that media approval would net Kerry 15 points in 2004. A pretty valuable credential. Without getting into the debate of whether or not Obama actually got an unfair leg up, I think there is a mechanism for affirmative action to play a role in elections, because information about candidates still have major gatekeepers. Fundraisers are another gatekeeper too.


Ron Replogle said...

Sorry Matt, your comment got caught in the spam filter (which operates in a way that still mystifies me). Thanks for the comment.

I take your main point about the press shilling for Obama against McCain, just as it shilled for Kerry (althought 15 points worth seems like an unlikely estimation of its impact). But the press at least pretended to be talking about characteristics of Obama and Kerry that would make them successful presidents (their intelligence, first-class temperament, etc.) not arguing for their presidency in the name of diversity or the rectification of injustice. And if anyone plays a role in elections analogous to the role admissions committees play in college admissions, it's the voters rather than the media. In my book, that makes liberal press bias a different kind of partiality, and a much less justifiable one, than affirmative action. Luckily, the mainstream media is remedying the problem itself by frittering away its audience and its credibility.

Dave said...

Affirmative action is the wrong term for the phenomenon that (helped) put Obama in office -- but I know what Kaus is getting at.

To hear many people talk about it, Obama's election wasn't as much about electing Obama to the presidency as it was about electing any African-American to the presidency. You still frequently hear people's pride and emotion when talking about casting their vote in this "historic" election.

It's doubtful whether this desire to put an African-American in the White House would have swayed many Republicans to switch their vote from McCain to Obama. But it likely swayed a a lot of independents, and by all accounts it greatly increased Democratic voter turnout. So there was at least some "racial preference" at play by some voters. In essence, these voters wanted to promote diversity in the Oval Office (over time).

I think this is quite comparable to race-based college admissions. In both decisions, the decision-makers' goal is to best help the *group* (the campus or the country) via promoting diversity, but do so at the expense of making the most meritocratic decision for the *individual*. In both scenarios, the decision-makers achieve their goal. But in both cases, if you focus your attention on only that individual who benefited at the margin, you're likely to be a little disappointed with what you got.