It was at the end of the unclassified hearing for President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency that Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, switched gears. Having spent much of his time extolling Gina Haspel’s professional credentials, the North Carolina Republican abruptly noted that she was also poised to break the glass ceiling at the CIA.
“It may be impossible to measure the importance of that breakthrough but I know that your confirmation will send a signal to the current workforce and the workforce of the future that a lifetime of commitment to the agency and its mission can still and will be rewarded,” Burr said.
If confirmed, Haspel would, indeed, make history. But in citing that possibility, Burr wasn't just offering commentary about social progress in America, he was taking his turn at using one of the Republican Party's new favorite political weapons.
The GOP in the Trump years has grown to love identity politics, viewing it as an effective means of waging battles and landing counterpunches. And it’s not just over Haspel.
"The only war on women that I see is the one that's being waged against every woman and every female that is close to this president," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Fox News early last year, responding to a question about Ivanka Trump and other women serving on Team Trump.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, said in December that “of course I’ve had a #MeToo moment, but nobody cared about that,” because, she suggested, of her conservative political leanings.
It’s relatively new terrain for the Republicans, who have traditionally made the case that merit always matters more than gender, race, sexual orientation (unless you are transgender and want to serve in the military). Indeed, for much of the right, the idea that these factors should be part of political considerations has long been derided as a sort of tokenism—an annoying liberal trait rooted in guilt and political correctness. And, for some, it’s proving odd to watch their party flip the script.
“It’s all part of the upside down world of American politics, where the only rule is that there are no rules,” said longtime GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “Both parties are saying things and doing things that would’ve been unimaginable just 10 years ago.”
Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist and a former spokeswoman for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, called the focus on identity politics a “crutch” and “extremely misguided.”
“A person should not get extra points for their identity, but rather their policies and performance,” she said. “Republicans who used identity politics to promote any nominee's gender or sexual preference wasted valuable time that could have been devoted to touting their outstanding qualifications."
The Trump White House, which exists in place of what would have been the administration of the first female U.S. president, made women’s empowerment an issue in its public-relations offensive in the days leading up to Haspel’s confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.
“There is no one more qualified to be the first woman to lead the CIA than 30+ year CIA veteran Gina Haspel,” Sanders, the White House press secretary, tweeted on Saturday. “Any Democrat who claims to support women’s empowerment and our national security but opposes her nomination is a total hypocrite.”
Asked about the White House’s women’s empowerment pitch, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) quipped, “Well that’s very interesting. I’m delighted to hear it. Is that coincidental or is that purposeful?”
The lone Republican woman on the committee, who ultimately decided to support Haspel’s nomination, was also unmoved by the gender-based argument.
“That is not a relevant consideration for me,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
Still, President Trump himself went out of his way to underscore Haspel’;s gender by tweeting on Monday morning that “in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!”
Trump’s most trusted and most watched allies in media followed suit, dutifully.
“CIA Nominee Gina Haspel does not deserve to be a target in the left's ‘war on women,’” a Fox News op-ed by Brigitte Gabriel blared on Wednesday morning. “The spiteful attacks against Haspel reveal something particularly troubling about the way the left views women, particularly women who take a strong stance against terrorism.”
The Republican National Committee, similarly, took to trolling on the issue, sending out multiple emails boosting Haspel and decrying the “DEMOCRATS’ WAR ON A HIGHLY-QUALIFIED WOMAN.”
“She’s arguably the most qualified nominee for the position ever, but Democrats are waging a war against Gina Haspel, the 33-year CIA veteran who will be the first female to head the agency after she’s confirmed,” one email read.
Another GOP rapid-response blast from Wednesday, the day of the hearing, offered the tongue-firmly-in-cheek subject hed: “Dem mansplains [to] Haspel: ‘It’s not that complicated.’”
An RNC official conceded that their email push was more about trolling liberals than a focus on feminism.
“If the shoe were on the other foot, Democrats would be calling Republicans sexist for opposing the first female CIA director,” the committee’s spokesman Michael Ahrens told The Daily Beast. “Just giving them a taste of their own medicine.”
Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, echoed Ahrens, saying conservatives were “fighting fire with fire.”
Angelo was one of several prominent LGBT Republicans who decried the amount of time it took for U.S. Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell to be confirmed. When Grenell was sworn in earlier this month, he became the highest ranking openly gay official in the Trump administration.
Angelo said that Republicans are becoming more comfortable highlighting diversity among already qualified people.
“The difference is generally on the left identity politics are played in a manner to check off diversity quotas, on the right they aren’t,” he claimed.
It’s unclear whether this line of defense is a temporary fix or will become part of a larger strategy as the administration shifts focus to the midterm elections. But it will probably come down to whether or not it works.
“This is tragic, but there is now an assumption in politics that every attack is a good attack,” Luntz said.
—With additional reporting by Andrew Desiderio