The Grand Old Bait and Switch

From Clarence Thomas to Sarah Palin, nobody plays cynical identity politics like the GOP.

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John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as the GOP vice presidential nominee has re-inserted the "woman" question into the presidential debate.

By choosing the second white female vice presidential candidate, McCain is trying to fashion himself, Sarah Palin, and, by extension, the entire Republican Party as more committed feminists than the Democrats.

But what is being called a "maverick" decision by McCain, is in fact just another version of the old Republican game of bait and switch with identity politics. Starting with George H. W. Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the GOP has been trying to convince Americans that any "woman," "African American" or "candidate of color" will do. And while the argument can be made that any diversity is better than no diversity, this Republican version is especially egregious because it often appoints minority candidates who vote against public legislation that insure that other members of their group have the same opportunities, choices and paths to success as they did. In effect, diversity, which dismantles affirmative action programs and women's reproductive rights, is the worse form of political fraud.

In 1991, when Thomas succeeded Thurgood Marshall, the Republicans created a new playbook for identity politics. Instead of re-creating an all-white Supreme Court, President George H. W. Bush maintained symbolic racial diversity while also appointing a judge who would vote against long-term diversity measures such as racial preference and affirmative action programs.

Even more cleverly, he nominated a significantly inexperienced African-American candidate whose presence reiterates the anti-affirmative rhetoric of unqualified minorities unfairly taking the jobs of more competent whites. With Thomas, the Republicans not only overlooked the exceptional and better qualified African-American men and women who did exist (and therefore could reinforce the benefits and necessity of affirmative action), but they appointed him with the intent of destroying that racial equity policies for which Marshall has so valiantly fought.

Unfortunately, because McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a stand-in for Hillary Clinton may help galvanize those McCain-weary, anti-choice, evangelical members of the Republican Party, it is even more important that we do not misread his decision as "maverick," "fresh" and anti-Bush.

In many ways, Palin is the anti-Hillary Clinton. As a member of the generation of second-wave feminists, Clinton had both symbolic and practical appeal to women and feminist voters. Her presidential bid was historic and groundbreaking because she was a woman candidate who is pro-choice, defends affirmative action policies, demands equal pay for women, had women of all colors in key campaign leadership positions, is an avid supporter of gay and lesbian rights and survived the onslaught of the Republican-dominated Congress as first lady and the "vetting" of the corporate media during this year's presidential primaries. In contrast, Palin represents the paradoxes of the post-feminist generation. Even though she is a member of Feminists for Life and actively opposes a woman's right to choose. While Palin supports equal pay for women, McCain has an even longer record of voting against legislation designed to close the pay gap between men and women. One such piece of legislation is the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which McCain opposed just this spring.

Today, as a result of the bait and switch of Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas, many African Americans are more prone to express racial skepticism rather than automatic racial solidarity with even highly qualified black politicians like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Michael Steele because their political conservatism is often at odds with African-American group interest. Likewise, supporters of women's rights need to be pre-emptive and see Palin's nomination as a rejection of long-term gender equality.

In the end, McCain's is not as much a bold move as it is an old page from the Republican playbook.

Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the non-profit organization, A Long Walk Home, Inc., which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to document and to end violence against underserved women and children.

Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.

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