One of the more disappointing characteristics of the Obama Administration is its supposedly shrewd practice of identity politics.
Presented last year with an opening on the US Supreme Court, the Administration, rather than searching for the two or three most outstanding legal minds in the country, went hunting for a “twofer” (a female minority candidate) and found her in US Appeals Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. There were (arguably) about 800 men and women more legally accomplished than Ms. Sotomayor, but they weren’t Hispanic, didn’t grow up in the Bronx, etc.
She got the job. The country got a second-tier legal mind to serve on the US Supreme Court.
Back at the onset of the Obama Administration, the same sort of identity politics led to the appointment of former Washington Governor Gary Locke, an American of Chinese descent, to be Secretary of Commerce. Commerce is one of those cabinet departments that could (and almost certainly should) be a powerhouse. It has a lot of leverage if properly (and shrewdly) applied. It can do a lot to make US industry more productive and competitive. But Mr. Locke did exactly nothing with the (potential) power entrusted to him. He was a non-player almost from Day One.
He wasn’t appointed to be a player. He was appointed to supposedly help the Democratic Party appeal to a growing constituency in western state American politics: Asian-Americans.
As his reward for doing nothing at Commerce he has now been appointed to be (you guessed it) the next US Ambassador to China. His appointment was much hailed in the newspapers not on its merits, but on the imagined shrewdness of its identity politics. Locke is Chinese-American. He’s going to be the US Ambassador to China. Won’t the Chinese be thrilled? What a great appointment!
As Clyde Prestowitz points out on his blog at Foreign Policy, the Locke appointment is depressing on virtually every level. An unimpressive Cabinet official should be shuffled back to Seattle, not given arguably the most important job in US diplomacy. But that’s the thing about identity politics. Things that shouldn’t matter easily trump things that do.
Prestowitz’s post on the Locke appointment is worth reading in full. What’s refreshing about it is this: he’s the only commentator “inside the Beltway” who is saying publicly what everyone (in policy and opinion-leader circles) is saying privately.
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