Don’t Snicker at Mitt Romney’s “Binders Full of Women”

The Internet laughed at Romney's awkward phrase, but liberals should applaud his powerful case for affirmative action.

The Internet spent Tuesday night laughing at Mitt Romney. All he had to do was utter an awkward-but-now-immortal phrase—“binders full of women”—and instantly a meme was born. A Twitter account for Mitt’s binder gained 13,000 followers within two hours; a similar Facebook account accrued 120,000 “likes” during the same time. And the jokes? They piled up even more rapidly.

Which is actually too bad.

Because if liberals had been listening, they would have realized that Mitt Romney was conceding a few points they’ve been arguing for decades. He admitted that workplace diversity is important. He was allowing that you have to work hard and sometimes make a special effort to achieve it. He was—though he surely would deny it—making the case for affirmative action.

No, really.

Here’s what went down at Tuesday night’s presidential debate. Katherine Fenton, an undecided voter, stood before Romney and President Obama and asked a simple question: “ In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”

Now Romney didn’t actually answer that question—he has no plans, really, to rectify such inequalities. So he offered, instead, a symbol of his own commitment to workplace diversity. It deserves to be quoted at length:

Thank you. An important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men.

And I—and I went to my staff, and I said, “How come all the people for these jobs are—are all men.” They said, “Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.” And I said, “Well, gosh, can’t we—can’t we find some—some women that are also qualified?”

And—and so we—we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet.

I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks,” and they brought us whole binders full of women.

I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.

Now one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort. But number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school.

She said, I can’t be here until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o’clock so I can be there for making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said fine. Let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

Get that? As governor of Massachusetts, Romney realized that he had a dearth of women working for him. So he made an extra effort to recruit them. And he even tweaked the rules a bit so that they’d feel welcome and able to succeed. Usually, this is the kind of stuff that drives Republicans crazy.

Remember, Obama came under harsh criticism for nominating not one but two women to the Supreme Court—with some conservatives sneeringly suggesting that identity politics trumped merit in making the picks. (One of the nominees, Sonia Sotomayor, didn’t help when she was quoted suggesting that a “wise Latina” might actually reach better decisions than white male counterparts; she was confirmed to the court anyway.)

Remember, too, that the Supreme Court is now considering a case that might allow it to strike down affirmative action in college admissions—a case that involves no hard quotas, but instead features colleges that use diversity goals to shape, however vaguely, their student bodies. Republicans are hopeful that “diversity” will be forever cast aside as a legitimate goal of educational institutions.

The GOP’s goal of a color- and gender-blind society doesn’t sound wrong at first glance: “The best man for the job” does sound fair, until you start to consider that the best man somehow almost always ends up being … a man. Usually white. Romney, to his credit, did realize that and acted accordingly, even if he’s possibly exaggerating his place in the story. It doesn’t always have to be a choice between diversity or merit: Sometimes, oftentimes, diversity is merit.

Unlike other moments from his time as Massachusetts government, Romney seems to still be proud of that achievement. So maybe somebody should ask him: Why is diversity a good goal for your cabinet, but not the Supreme Court? Why is diversity good for in Massachusetts, but not in universities? You’d probably get a confused and confounding answer. But that answer might be more enlightening than a million more binder jokes.