So When Will a Muslim Be President?
A guide to which minority group has the best chance to win the White House next.
At long last, my people have an answer to the question "When will we have a Jewish president?" The answer, it turns out, is "Not before we have a black president." I imagine that all ethnic groups play this game of "when will one of ours get there?" (The question is especially common among Jews, since we're sort of white and used to success at other jobs—law, medicine, swimming.) But now that a half-African man with Muslim ancestors has defeated, for the presidency, an Episcopalian with a Roman numeral after his name, the bookmakers have to move the odds for all of us.
Which historically oppressed group will see one of its own take the oath of the presidency on a Bible/Quran/Analects/etc. next? We must admit that some groups are too small to have much of a chance—met any Zoroastrians lately?—and others seem too exotic. But plenty of others are in the running. Here, then, is a guide to which minority group will next see one of its own in the White House, in descending order of probability, and with possible candidates included:
The women: First off, they're not a minority. With so many more men than women imprisoned, unable to vote because of felony convictions, dying in battle, and murdered, there are both more women alive and more women eligible to vote. If they choose to unite behind one of their own—as many of them were inclined to do in 2008—they'll be the not-so-little voting bloc that could. Top candidates: Hillary Clinton, although by 2012 she'll be a little long in the pantsuit; Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, mentioned as a possible Democratic veep this year, but she is only six months younger than Clinton; and Sen. Claire McCaskill, from the swing state of Missouri. Many top Republican women are either too moderate for the base, like Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe; too old, like Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; or too Sarah Palin, like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The Latter-day Saints:Learn the terminology—they often call themselves "Saints" or "LDS"—because a Mormon president is coming. The main Mormon denomination claims 5.7 million adherents in the United States, making it twice as large as the Episcopal church and the Congregationalists put together. And despite widespread prejudice against Mormons, they're overrepresented in national politics. Until Oregon's Gordon Smith lost last week, there were five Mormon senators: four Republicans and a very big Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid. Mormons are also an unusually affluent group, with many businessmen in their ranks, and as Mitt Romney's campaign showed, they're inclined to give to one of their own. The liberal Barack Obama may prove a boon to conservative Mormons' electoral prospects: Those least inclined to support a Mormon are Southern Protestants, a group Obama struggled with, but after they have four or eight years to get used to a black man in the White House, a Mitt Romney or an Orrin Hatch might not seem so strange. If Jeremiah Wright couldn't derail Obama, who will be afraid of Mormons' sacred underwear? Top candidates: Romney, although his sell-by date is nearing, and former Utah Gov. and current Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt. Dark horse: wildly popular, if troglodytic, radio host Glenn Beck.
The Jews: Together now, a sigh of relief: It's not going to be Lieberman! Having dirty-danced with too many political parties in the past four years, Joe's rep is tarnished; Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid are both happy to use him, but neither really wants to be seen holding hands with him the next morning. So which members of the tribe—a tribe that is about 5 million strong in America, with deep pockets, high voter turnout, and diminishing fear of the Bradley (Bernstein?) Effect—might be next on America's dance card? Top candidates: Rahm Emanuel, congressman-cum-chief of staff, a man whose debtors include every Democrat in Congress, since he led the House Dems' fundraising effort in the watershed election of 2006; rising GOP star Eric Cantor, of Virginia's 7th congressional district; and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, whose very name recalls that old, shattered dream known as campaign-finance reform. But Feingold, who has thought about running before, is on the record supporting same-sex marriages, so we may want to sub in Ed Rendell, the Pennsylvania governor who, after supporting Hillary, helped deliver his state to Obama. If you think Rendell (b. 1944) is too old, and you just can't see Michael Bloomberg in the Oval Office, then it might be fun to consider Al Franken—should he push aside his fellow Jew, Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, in the recount still in progress.
The Muslims: Muslims, you may have heard, have a PR problem. And a Muslim running for president would be in a tricky situation: There's more hostility to Muslims in the red states, so a Muslim candidate would have to bank on the blue states. But if he or she hewed closely to traditional Islam on matters like the role of women, he would never win California or New York. To go blue, he'd have to be a pretty secular Muslim—but if he were too publicly secular, he'd lose potential donations of money and time from fellow Muslims. Of course, many American Muslims are quite secular, so nobody knows what kind of Muslim could count on ethnic politics to be an asset, rather than a detriment. Which is why the first Muslim president may well be a black Muslim, not Arab or Persian, and it so happens the only two Muslims in Congress—let's call them the top candidates—are African-American: Keith Ellison (D-Minn., raised Catholic) and André Carson (D-Ind., raised Baptist). Bonus prediction: In future years, look for a relatively secular politician to emerge from the large Iranian community in Los Angeles and achieve national prominence.
The Hindus: It's actually fairly surprising that there's no Hindu in Congress or in a governorship, given the popular perception of Indians as an industrious, nonthreatening model minority. If, like millions of Americans, you've been introduced to Indian folkways from The Simpsons and that stellar character actor who often works alongside Seth Rogen, you're probably inclined to like them. But as we learned in the aftermath of 9/11, some Americans assume that any dark-skinned, South Asian-looking person is an Arab or a Muslim—and despise him accordingly. It's likely that the first Hindu (or South Asian) president will come from a red state, having earned the white-guy seal of approval. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would be a perfect example, except that he is a convert to Catholicism. According to the Hindu American Foundation, there are four Hindu state legislators, including Kumar Barve, the majority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates. But my bet is that the first Hindu president will be an Indian-American celebrity who, before entering the political arena, has already transcended ethnicity in people's minds. Top candidate: Kal Penn, better known as Kumar from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Penn is more intellectual than most actors (I've interviewed him, and he's impressive), was a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and stumped for Barack Obama.
The gays and lesbians: Yes, I know, we may already have had a gay president—Lincoln is a much-nominated candidate for closeted commander in chief—but if we're talking about an openly gay president, it won't be for a while. Still, we know what to do to improve a gay candidate's chances: murder an old person. Younger generations are far more tolerant of homosexuality; we know, for example, that voters under 30 opposed California's Proposition 8. When the time comes, voters may feel more comfortable with a lesbian president than with a gay man, given the stereotypes about lesbian monogamy and domesticity. Top candidate: a young woman, a college freshman somewhere in the progressive Midwest, maybe Wisconsin or Minnesota, who just worked her ass off for Barack Obama and is planning her run in 2048.
The atheists: When the lion lies down with the lamb, when the president is a Republican Muslim and the Democratic speaker of the House is a vegan Mormon lesbian, when the secretary of defense is a Jain pacifist from the Green Party, they will all agree on one thing: atheists need not apply. A 2007 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans would not vote for an atheist for president. (By contrast, only 43 percent wouldn't vote for a homosexual, and only 24 percent wouldn't vote for a Mormon.) As Ronald Lindsay, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, told me in an e-mail: "Atheism spells political death in this country."
Indeed. Only one current congressman has confessed to being an atheist: Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from the lefty East Bay region of Northern California. If he ever ran for president, he would need God's help just as surely as he wouldn't ask for it.
Update, Nov. 12, 2008, 9:57 p.m.:As several readers have noted in "The Fray," this guide is not exactly comprehensive. With apologies to Summum, herewith two more groups that have good odds at winning the White House in the not-too-distant future.
The Hispanics: At more than 13 percent of the population, Hispanics are considered the largest ethnic minority in the country—but what that means is murky. Not all Hispanics (or Latinos, as we more commonly say) speak Spanish, and not all have strong roots in a Spanish-speaking country: Argentine immigrants to the United States, for example, are often ethnic Italians who, having lived in Argentina for one generation, now magically share an ethnic designation with descendants of the Aztecs. This wild diversity has hindered the development of voting blocs, especially since the politically powerful Miami Cubans are more conservative than, say, reliably Democratic Puerto Ricans. Still, the sheer numbers of Hispanics, and their concentration in states rich with electoral votes, mean a señor or señora presidente is coming soon. Top candidates: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will be 69 in 2016, younger than John McCain is now. Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, could be a senator or governor before eight years have passed (but many worry about bimbo eruptions, like the one that brought down his marriage). Ed Garza served two terms as the wunderkind mayor of San Antonio before being term-limited out; he was an early Obama supporter who could end up in the administration. And it's hard to resist the Sanchez sisters, Linda and Loretta, Democrats of California, the first sister-sister pair in Congress.
East Asians: Although an old and assimilated minority group—it's not hard to find fifth-generation Japanese- or Chinese-Americans on the West Coast—there have been few national political figures with East Asian roots. Their political success has been limited by unfair prejudice in every era: against Japanese-Americans during World War II, against Chinese-Americans during the Cold War, against Vietnamese-Americans during and after the Vietnam War. Looking ahead, the strong Christianity of the Korean-American community makes it a natural place to look for politicians who could woo evangelicals, but for now most Asian-American politicians come from secular ethnic communities on the West Coast. Top candidates: Matt Fong, an Air Force Academy grad and former treasurer of California, who in 1998 ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Barbara Boxer, then joined the Bush administration; Fiona Ma, only 42, the majority whip in the California Senate, a Democrat with a degree from Pepperdine—a conservative Christian school; and Chinese-American Gary Locke, the former governor of Washington.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty