Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
President-elect Joe Biden’s challenge in assembling a cabinet is as complex as any in history. With deep divisions to heal, a pandemic to stop, an economic collapse and a political system teetering on dysfunction, who he puts in powerful positions matters tremendously. Personnel, the saying goes, is policy.
Obviously, he needs talent. And Biden evidently realizes that talent is broadly distributed without regard to race, gender, religion or sexual identity. Diversity is clearly a high priority for the man whose first presidential decision was to elevate the first woman, first Black, first Indian-American to the vice presidency.
Perhaps the most important thing you learn running for president – or helping someone run for president – is how big, broad and impossibly diverse this country is. Joe knows that. Having known him for more than 30 years, I can attest to his commitment to being a president for young African Americans too often caught in a vise between street violence and police violence; for single moms working two jobs; for small business owners on the precipice; for suburban commuters, and, yes, for rural folks whose dreams are as frayed as the Trump flag whipping in the wind outside their house.
Here’s what some of my right-wing friends don’t get about Democrats’ commitment to diversity. They think people like Biden insist on diversity because of some politically correct white liberal guilt. That may be true for some, but for those of us with actual experience in the real world, the commitment to diversity is far more practical, besides being fundamentally just. When you broaden the pool of talent, you get more talented people.
That seems simple, and yet some on the right simply can’t grasp it. Baseball got better when Black players were included. The NBA got better when the Houston Rockets signed a 7-foot-6 center from China. And the Army improved when Colin Powell was made a general. More immediately, Dr. Anthony Fauci has noted that one of the vaccines for Covid-19 was developed through the leadership of a Black woman: Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, one of the lead scientists for coronavirus research at the National Institutes of Health.
Recent history shows the strength that comes from a diverse cabinet. My old boss, President Bill Clinton, promised “a cabinet that looks like America.”
He nominated African Americans to run the Commerce Department, the Agriculture Department, the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Energy. He named Hispanics to lead the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, and chose women to lead the Justice Department, the Departments of Health and Human Services and Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Domestic Policy Council and the US Mission to the United Nations.
Still, the Washington Post couldn’t help but sniff that “with 13 lawyers among the Cabinet’s 18 members, it doesn’t quite look like America.” (Note to Biden: you can’t please everyone; least of all the press.)
Now, here’s what some of my left-wing friends don’t get about diversity: Biden needs diversity of thought as much as diversity of race, gender, background, religion and sexual identity. Here, too, history can be a guide. Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet was all-white and all-male, but for the mid-19th Century–a time of racial and gender oppression–it was diverse in its way.
His secretary of state, William Seward, of New York, hailed from the East. Attorney General Edward Bates was from Missouri and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase of Ohio represented the West. The first Republican president chose three Democrats for his Cabinet: the formidable Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War, Gideon Wells at Navy and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. That “team of rivals” saved the Union.
As a cautionary tale, consider the cabinet of John F. Kennedy. He chose “the Best and the Brightest” – highly credentialed Ivy Leaguers like McGeorge Bundy (national security advisor), Walt Rostow (his deputy) and Rhodes scholar-turned-corporate titan Robert Strange McNamara (defense secretary). Those arrogant geniuses blundered us into the quagmire of Vietnam. House Speaker Sam Rayburn had it right when he huffed, “They may be every bit as intelligent as you say. But I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
Liberals who extol diversity make what I believe is an inarguable point when they note that we are products of our lived experience. As a white male I have never known the pain of prejudice. Nor has President-elect Biden. That he is surrounding himself with folks who have lived a very different life from him – and from each other – is thrilling to me. I hope he extends that to people who come at politics and policy from a different perspective.
Each of his two Democratic predecessors put Republicans in charge of the Pentagon. George W. Bush and Barack Obama also had someone from the party opposite run Transportation.
The grumbling on the left about Cedric Richmond is concerning. Richmond is the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Biden has named him to be a senior adviser in the West Wing. Good. Biden will need folks from a variety of backgrounds to help him lead this diverse but divided country.
Richmond has also “run for sheriff” – winning his Louisiana House seat in 2010 by unseating an incumbent Republican. Where I come from, flipping districts is how you build a majority. But the progressive group Justice Democrats slammed Richmond as “unacceptable to progressives” because he has received large amounts of money from the oil and gas industry.
First, it should shock no one that a Louisiana congressman receives donations from his state’s dominant industry. But it is surprising that Richmond compiled a 93% scorecard from the progressive League of Conservation Voters in 2019 (and a 76% lifetime score). Moreover, Richmond played a critical role in electing Biden, serving as campaign co-chair for a man who ran with a strongly progressive platform on climate change. If Biden is to actually enact his ambitious climate agenda, having Richmond’s talent and experience will be essential.
The progressive left busted their tails for Biden, and moderates like me must acknowledge that. They deserve a seat at the table. But no one – except Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – gets to control the guest list.
An all-white, all-male Cabinet is, I hope, in the dustbin of history. I also hope that an all-liberal or all-conservative Cabinet is as well. America’s diversity is in many ways our country’s greatest challenge. With these picks, Joe Biden is reminding us it is also our greatest strength.