Hillary Clintons’ supporters, justifiably, are devastated. She came so close to winning. Having waited so long for a Mrs. President, millions of women shared Hillary Clinton’s assumption that this year would witness that historic breakthrough. Especially in the last three months, Hillary Clinton found her groove, honing her message, campaigning effectively, winning the big states. But she could not overcome the lead she unwillingly spotted Barack Obama. More than 17 million voters later, Hillary’s camp has every right to mourn, yet little basis for claiming she endured discrimination. Clintonism – Hillary’s and Bill’s peculiar combination of pathologies – defeated Hillary Clinton in 2008, not sexism.
In 2007, many toasted the Democrats for having a viable female candidate whose fame made her far more than a gender-based candidate and a viable African-American candidate whose message made him far more than a race-based candidate. Overlooking the ugly identity politics to which Democrats in particular and Americans in general have been addicted, we hoped that the candidates would run on message and their records, not on a sense of group frustration or entitlement – and that the candidates would be judged on their merits not by the color of their skin or the combination of their chromosomes.
It is hard to quantify prejudice when both racism and sexism have been delegitimized. Our favorite tools, surveys, require honesty, while many racists and sexists know to camouflage their ugly feelings. Still, just as John Kennedy played the Catholic card cleverly, and mobilized Republican-leaning Catholics to vote for him and the Democratic Party in 1960, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama benefited from great enthusiasm among women and blacks, respectively. This mass mobilization appears to have delivered far more votes for their respective camps than were lost to prejudice.
But, as the conflict intensified, it was, alas, inevitable, that had Obama lost, some blacks would have yelled racism – just as some women are now attributing Clinton’s loss to sexism. The bills in the indictment are feeble. If the charges are limited to a handful of poorly-chosen phrases journalists and politicians used, in the heat of a campaign wordfest, America is a far more enlightened place than most Democrats acknowledge.
Clearly, the media – if we can speak in these general terms – was rougher on Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama, especially at first. But to attribute the media bias to sexism requires some evidence. Barack Obama benefited from great coverage because he offered reporters a fresh face and a great story. From the start of the campaign, Hillary Clinton’s problems had far more to do with the baggage she carried from the 1990s than the baggage she shares with her sisters in arms.
What really defeated Hillary Clinton was Clintonism. Her arrogant air of presumption, her preference for staffers better known for loyalty than competence, and her and her husband’s aggressive tactics backfired this year. Americans, it seems, are not just fed up with George W. Bush but with politics in general. And the two Clintons represent the polarizing, do-or-die, hyper-partisan, exceedingly personal politics of the baby boomers, both right and left – that both Barack Obama and John McCain repudiate by their respective ages and by the message each generates.
It would be easier to make the charge of sexism stick had Hillary Clinton run the kind of campaign she ran from March to May for the year-and-a-half before that. Instead, we watched an overpaid staff fritter away money, opportunities, and ultimately, a chance at victory. We watched a candidate with obvious talents and passion, fail to deliver a compelling message and try inheriting the White House rather than earning it. We watched the candidate’s husband engage in the sharp-elbow tactics and self-destructive sloppiness for which he was so famous in the 1990s, but which so many seem to have forgotten in the haze of Bush-generated nostalgia for the Clinton era. The changes in the Clinton campaign after March, in personnel, messaging and tactics implicitly acknowledge the failures before March.
Hillary Clinton has always been a fast learner, smart, able to improvise, willing to be self-critical, and effective at recovering. She displayed all those qualities in this campaign – and was rewarded with hundreds of delegates and millions of votes. That she did not start changing soon enough, or recover fast enough to surmount the lead she and her incompetent campaign staff gave Obama, is not due to sexism.
Part of breaking the glass ceiling and competing with everyone else is avoiding the tendency to attribute criticism or setbacks to bias. In fairness, Hillary Clinton has not complained about gender bias. Her disappointed supporters should follow her example, celebrating how far she came, and learning from her how to learn from mistakes and defeats not simply wallow in them.
CONSOLATION PRIZE: For all those Democrats depressed by Hillary’s loss – and for all those Republicans worried about the – dare we call it – Obamomentum I prescribe a simple Rx: watch Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. It is hard for anyone who loves America, and loves democracy, not to be moved by his centrist, inclusive, nationalist vision. Whether he can implement it, of course, is the big question…