10/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sarah Palin and the Republicans' Favorite Sport: Extreme Affirmative Action!

Usually, Republicans hate affirmative action. A core Republican message is that they are the sole protectors of embattled white men against the forces of entitled minorities and aggressive women unfairly going after their turf. This message is picked up and amplified by Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, and the like.

Republicans hate affirmative action. Until they think it will work for them. Then they just love it, in a big way. Look at Sarah Palin.

Affirmative action means making special efforts to increase the representation of targeted groups in schools, workplaces and government. It usually involves two practices: (1) engaging in outreach, to find potential applicants for opportunities that might not otherwise come over the transom; and (2) using a more subjective idea of merit when considering who would best fill a position.

Most people think of affirmative action as something that relates solely to ethnic minorities. In fact, decades of research has shown that the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women. When Hillary Clinton attended Yale Law School, it was 10% female. Now Yale Law is fifty percent female. That didn't happen by accident. Women and to a lesser extent minorities have made advances into the work world over the past four decades because nearly all academic institutions, all large companies in America and the entire military have made it a priority to increase their their inclusion of people who were previously underrepresented.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin. John McCain's choice is a big-time affirmative-action choice! Palin has done some interesting things but she is certainly not the most qualified Republican to be vice-president.

Sarah Palin is not the most conventionally qualified. But she offers other attributes that are important to McCain: she's a right-winger who will appeal to the base; she presents the "gal/guy you want to have beers with" mystique that is so weirdly important to Republicans; she's a big gun nut; and she has a reputation as a reformer (of sorts), which matches McCain's desire to repurpose the Republican Party away from the crony capitalism of the Bush years and back into the good governance folks we knew sixty years ago. (You may recall that it was Eisenhower, a Republican who warned of the dangers of the growing military-industrial complex. Those were the good old days.)

Oh, did I mention that Sarah Palin is also a woman? The value of this is not that she's going to pick off any of Hillary Clinton's 18 million voters -- that seems very unlikely to me -- but rather than she makes John McCain seem -- to his party -- cool. And mavericky. And young. And dare I say it? - interested in diversity. Keep in mind that these messages are primarily for the Republican base, not for the average Huffington Post reader. The primary value that Sarah Palin brings to the Republican effort is that she makes them interesting. She has a good narrative. And in that respect, she's far more qualified to meet McCain's needs than Mitt Romney and crew.

One reason affirmative action works is that once people see black, or Latino, or Asian, or female, or handicapped people in positions of authority, they start noticing the ways they are succeeding. So as Sarah Palin takes on a more national presence, more of America will start seeing her as vice-presidential material simply because that's how she will be introduced. Because the Republicans want to win, they will start attributing positive qualities to her, which in turn will increase her confidence and capabilities.

To be sure, Sarah Palin would be a terrible vice president, but not because she's stupid, incompetent or inexperienced. She'd be a terrible vice-president because she has a wacked-out belief system and would make bad decisions based on that belief system. That's different from simple incompetence or inexperience.

Sarah Palin is only the latest in a series of Republican extreme affirmative action hires. When Reagan tapped Sandra Day O'Connor to be a Supreme Court justice, the first woman so chosen, she was a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals -- not even the Arizona Supreme Court. She was a competent judge, who in fact had been held back by sexism -- the first job she was offered after graduating third in her class at Stanford Law School was as a legal secretary. But she didn't have nearly the credentials of others up for the job. But she's done well for herself.

When Bush Sr. put Clarence Thomas up for nomination to the Supreme Court, Thomas had sat for less than a year on the D.C. Circuit Court and had written fewer than a dozen opinions. That was the sum total of his judicial experience. No matter - to the right wing he's been a great success story. According to a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, he's proven himself to be a "principled and scholarly jurist."

Wanting to hang on to the angry white male vote, Republicans will continue to belittle affirmative action. But in their hearts, they know it can work -- maybe not for the benefit of America, but for their own interests. That's why they practice it. When they think no one is looking.