The modern-day Republican Party appears to have a problem with black people—and especially black people in positions of power. Perhaps that can explain why they spend so much political capital trying to deny, undermine or prevent African Americans from entering or staying in the ruling class.
Earlier this year, in anticipation of then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice being nominated to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, 97 House Republicans sent a letter to President Obama expressing their outrage over a nomination that had not yet occurred. They alleged that Ambassador Rice was “widely viewed as having either willfully or incompetently misled the American public” about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Failed presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) went so far as to accuse Rice of “not being very bright,” a comment so laden with misogynistic and racist undertones that it received widespread condemnation.
McCain’s comments were particularly hypocritical considering he is the man solely responsible for unleashing Sarah Palin onto the political landscape, a woman who attended five colleges before receiving one degree. Susan Rice, in contrast, attended Stanford University, where she received a Truman Scholarship, graduated with a B.A. in history, was elected Phi Beta Kappa, awarded a Rhodes scholarship and attended Oxford University, where she earned her masters and doctorate degrees.
Yet McCain continued his attacks on Rice, who is now the national security advisor, by concluding that she was somehow “not qualified.”
Yes, he actually said that.
The Washington Post editorial board opined, “Could it be…that the signatories of the letter are targeting Ms. Rice because she is an African-American woman? The signatories deny that, and we can’t know their hearts. What we do know is that more than 80 of the signatories are white males, and nearly half are from states of the former Confederacy.”
But despite obvious holes in their logic, reasoning and rhetoric, congressional Republicans have maintained their attack lines, particularly when an African-American nominee is involved.
The latest victim is House Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), who in May was nominated to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and thereby has extensive influence on lending and mortgage practices.
Watt has more than 20 years on the House Financial Services and Judiciary Committees, and displays a proven commitment to fighting deceptive mortgage lenders, protecting consumers from abusive practices and expanding affordable housing. Watt is known as a bipartisan dealmaker. He also played a critical role in passing the Dodd-Frank Act, which, among other financial regulations, aimed to eliminate predatory lending practices that contributed to the mortgage crisis of 2007.
Watt’s congressional career follows more than two decades in the private sector as a small-business owner. He holds a law degree from Yale University, and his expertise has been in real estate, consumer protection and business development law.
It is curious, therefore, that Senate Republicans callously blocked his nomination last week—refusing to allow it to come to a full vote on the Senate floor.
Their excuse? Watt isn’t qualified enough.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was one of the most vocal critics, arguing someone with more experience in mortgage finance markets is needed to run the FHFA. “I absolutely hope that he’s not confirmed,” Corker said of Watt, according to Politico. Corker said that Watt, while a well-respected lawmaker, does not have the qualifications to oversee the complex financial firms.
Industry professionals disagreed.
The National Association of Home Builders, American Bankers Association, Mortgage Bankers Association, the Financial Services Roundtable and the National Association of Realtors all endorsed the Watt nomination. And Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, defended Watt, citing his personal experience as a lawyer and work on the House Financial Services Committee. “In his 20-plus years practicing law, he has personally walked hundreds of families through real-estate closings,” Johnson said. “This is the kind of in-depth expertise we need leading the FHFA.”
Historically, no sitting member of Congress has ever been rejected by the Senate to a Cabinet-level position since before the Civil War, 170 years ago. The Senate last rejected Massachusetts Rep. Caleb Cushing in 1843, who was nominated to become President John Tyler’s Treasury Secretary—and even then the vote wasn’t filibustered, which was the case with Watt. Cushing’s nomination was actually allowed to come to the floor for a full vote. According to Roll Call columnist David Hawkings, “The fate of an incumbent lawmaker’s nomination has been as close to a sure thing as there’s been on the congressional calendar.”
Republicans have a few reasons for playing this style of dirty politics.
First, the GOP cynically (and unapologetically) remains the party of Wall Street. They appear more concerned with maximizing profits for the nation’s top bankers, donors and financial services firms than they are with protecting the interests of middle-class Americans. The move to block Watt, who has proven to be an advocate on behalf of the financial interests of the most vulnerable, is not unlike the Republican opposition to Elizabeth Warren’s and Richard Cordray’s nominations to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Second, “obstruction at all costs” has become the Republican Party’s modus operandi ever since Barack Obama became the nation’s first African-American president. So beholden to this Tea Party brand of politics have they become that they have risked putting the nation in bankruptcy rather than compromise with Obama’s White House.
Racial equality is, no doubt, a symbol of social progress. And the Tea Party is, most assuredly, a symbol of the past. Perhaps Susan Rice as secretary of state wouldn’t have been too threatening on her own except she belongs to an administration that includes the nation’s first African-American president and its first black attorney general. The optics alone are troubling for people committed to a status quo in which white males dominate the power structure.
The response from conservatives unwilling to accept this new face of power has been blatant obstruction and disrespect. As Attorney General Eric Holder scolded one House Republican during a hearing last year, “If you don‘t like me that’s one thing. You should respect the fact that I hold an office that is deserving of respect.”
Watt—clearly qualified—is curiously dismissed in the same way Obama’s legitimacy, Holder’s competence or Rice’s aptitude have been constantly called into question.
And next up is Jeh Johnson. President Obama recently nominated the Morehouse College and Columbia Law School alum to replace Janet Napolitano as head of the Department of Homeland Security. Johnson is well-regarded in Washington circles and served as general counsel at the Defense Department during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Republicans have already begun to lay the groundwork with their (weak) attacks on him, claiming that Johnson is a “loyalist and fundraiser” for Obama and the Democrats.
The fact is that GOP operatives once believed that they could limit President Obama to one term. They failed. Now they want, as much as possible, to nullify his presidency. This is why you see appointments held up for more than a year or Cabinet-level nominations filibustered. If a president cannot choose his own team, and has only three years left to govern, his ability to do so is limited and his legacy— especially as it relates to the judiciary—is crippled.
It’s a sinister plan, and one that has its roots in the antebellum and post-Civil War South, when nullification became the last resort of Confederate states.
Sometimes politics really are black and white.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.