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?