If Republicans Believed in a Meritocracy, They’d Confirm Loretta Lynch Now

Theodore R. Johnson III
President Barack Obama looks on as his nominee for U.S. attorney general, Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., speaks during an event at the White House in Washington, D.C., Nov. 8, 2014.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate had been expected this week to take up the nomination of Loretta Lynch to replace Eric H. Holder Jr. as attorney general, but the vote has been delayed, yet again, by the Republican majority as part of an attempt to force Democrats to relent on an unrelated bill. The nomination, which would make Lynch the first African-American woman to hold the position, has already experienced a historic delay that partially can be traced to the GOP’s simply seeking to oppose President Barack Obama.

Her confirmation, once considered a sure thing, is in jeopardy because of significant opposition.


But the GOP’s disapproval of Lynch is puzzling, since she represents the model of citizenship in the Republican Party’s America, where a person is—in theory, at least—judged solely on his or her merits. That appears not to be enough, though, for senators blocking her nomination. Not only must she be exceptionally skilled, dedicated and of high character, but she also must share their outlook on key issues. Her qualifications, in other words, aren’t relevant because she doesn’t see the world as they do. The message seems clear: Being different is her cardinal sin.

Which likely comes as no surprise to the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Her life story is a series of achievements in the face of being questioned because of her difference. While she was a student at a predominantly white elementary school, her standardized test score was so high that the school demanded she retake the test. She did and got a higher score.

She was named valedictorian of her high school class, but the white administrators did not think it was appropriate to have a black girl as the top student, so they asked her to share the honor with a white student. And she did so with dignity and grace. She went off to Harvard University and began her ascent through the legal profession.

Her path to success is the blueprint for the America in which Republicans claim to believe. In their construct, the nation is a true meritocracy that doesn’t attach any special value to, or make special allowance for, race, gender or socioeconomic status. Individuality, respectability, faith and hard work are the principles of good citizenship. Lynch epitomizes these qualities but is still deemed by some Republicans to be an unacceptable choice. This view runs directly counter to the party narrative of the America they envision.


To add to their contradictory rationale for opposing her nomination, Republican senators do not even question her qualifications. During her confirmation hearing, most of them noted that her credentials and record as an effective prosecutor are exemplary and beyond question. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said, “I think she is eminently qualified.” And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) added that “she is qualified by any reasonable standard.” Ultimately, all the Senate is supposed to do is assess a nominee’s qualifications for the job.

But since her hearing, some Republican senators have started questioning Lynch’s motivations, integrity and policy views. The most forthright denouncement came from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who attacked her on a number of policy issues and questioned her credibility after she declared under oath that she would be an independent check on the president and defend the Constitution.


Whenever a confirmation vote does come, Lynch is expected to squeak through, but absent a better explanation for what has transpired, it’s hard not to think that the animosity some of these senators have for Obama has trumped any objective assessment of the ability of the president’s nominee to serve as attorney general. Her nomination is no longer about her merit but about political expedience.

Loretta Lynch’s American exceptionalism should be perfectly aligned with the Republicans’ ethos. But instead of pointing to her life story as a way to underscore their stated philosophy, they’re making an example of her in a different way—as the scapegoat in a partisan political process. And they’re sending the message that the Republican Party pays only lip service to meritocracy while maintaining a process that rewards only those who believe what they believe.


It’s yet another failure in a long list of blown opportunities for the party to broaden its appeal.

Theodore R. Johnson III is a former White House fellow. His writing focuses on race, society and politics. Follow him on Twitter.

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