News & Politics

Why Is Having a Cabinet that 'Looks Like America' Important?

Hillary Clinton pledged on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show last week that she would appoint women to at least half the cabinet posts.

Clinton, in an interview on Monday with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, said, “I am going to have a cabinet that looks like America, and 50 percent of America is women, right?”

She was responding to a question about whether she would follow the example of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who campaigned on a similar pledge and enacted it once in office.

The potential first female president has made direct appeals to women a central part of her candidacy, which has lead Donald Trump to accuse her of constantly playing the “woman card.”

And the pledge fits with Clinton’s history: as first lady, senator and secretary of state, Clinton tapped often women as top aides.

But a cabinet that is half-female would be setting a new bar.

What possible relevance to the question of governance is the notion that a cabinet should “look like America”? This is not to say that Hillary couldn’t find enough qualified women to run the departments. But why is it important what a cabinet looks like when 30% of the American people have trouble identifying the vice president, and far fewer any of the cabinet secretaries?

All the American people care about is if the cabinet nominee is qualified for the job. Whether they are black, white, man, woman, gay, straight is irrelevant to the ultimate question of whether they can run their department in a competent manner.

“No hint of quotas or numeric targets — other than ‘more than my predecessor’— has ever been part of cabinet head discussions before,” said Heather Hurlburt, who served as a senior adviser at the State Department and National Security Council from 1995-2001. “So it’s an enormous deal.”

“The matter-of-course suggestions that it would be easy to find that many qualified women at that level, and that representation that matches or comes close to societal representation matters, are also entirely new,” she added.

Author Jay Newton-Small, who interviewed Clinton and other female politicians for her recent book “Broad Influence,” said this move is particularly unique considering the traditional American aversion to set targets for gender or race.

“In the rest of the world, quotas are quite normal. But in the U.S., a country founded on the idea of merit —it’s hard to imagine that these days quotas could get through Congress,” Newton-Small said. “But making half your cabinet women is something Clinton can do unilaterally.”

Being a cabinet secretary is not rocket science so there are bound to be several candidates for the job who are qualified. And, in fact, presidents have always had an eye on other factors in choosing cabinet secretaries, so the idea of rationing cabinet posts to give women half of them is not a crazy one.

But if the very first qualification a president looks for is whether a candidate’s loins are cloven, it makes a mockery of the selection process.