June 5 2008
Candidate Clinton: Sexism, Racism, and Electoral Politics
The Democratic presidential race is coming to a close. The Democratic National Committee has attempted to resolve the controversy over the Florida and Michigan Democratic primaries by giving both state delegations half votes. That diminished Barack Obama's edge over Hillary Clinton, but he is still likely to win enough delegates to be named the Democratic nominee. In fact, it appears that it is mathematically impossible for Senator Hillary Clinton to reach the magical delegate threshold of 2,118. The question now is whether Senator Clinton exits the race and if so, will she do so with grace?
Hillary Clinton's candidacy is an historic milestone. She created a massive organization, raised millions of dollars, and plowed over all but one of her male rivals. In a different year, she would have won the nomination. But not this time.
The reasons are many. Her campaign made obvious strategic miscalculations. She was not prepared for vigorous competition, only rallying after losing eleven straight contests and falling significantly behind in the delegate count. Her husband's presidency was a mixed blessing. Unfortunate comments after the South Carolina primary created a whiff of race baiting, alienating thousands of African Americans who had, until then, strongly supported her candidacy. Finally, she faced another politician nonpareil-the seemingly effortless eloquence, grace, and unparalleled ability of Barack Obama to evoke hope in millions of Americans. Moreover, the symbolism of his candidacy-which dramatically repudiates centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and horrific acts of overt racism-overshadowed the uniqueness of her run.
The result does no discredit to her. Unfortunately, blaming sexism and misogyny for the state of Senator Clinton's presidential aspirations threatens to diminish her legacy.
She has complained about the "sexism that has gone on in this campaign" and the fact that "so much of what has occurred that has been very sexist." Some of her supporters voice similar sentiments. "She's been treated pretty shabby," one claimed. Another complained of "pervasive and insidious sexism." Yet another stated that "latent sexism has been a part of this campaign." Therese Murray, president of the Massachusetts Senate, unapologetically claimed that "Obama wouldn't have gotten to where he got today if it weren't for the bias of the male media." Geraldine Ferraro lamented that racism is unacceptable, but sexism seems to be permissible.
These claims are nonsense.
Does sexism still exist in America and are some voters unlikely to choose a woman for president? Of course. But racism also still exists, and undoubtedly has cost Senator Obama as many votes as sexism has cost Senator Clinton. Indeed, both Clintons have played the race card. To Senator Obama's credit, he has not wasted his time whining about this ugly historical legacy, but has worked to create a new reality.
Consider the membership of the U.S. Senate. There are fifteen women and one African-American. Is sex or race the bigger barrier to winning high office? Moreover, Senator Clinton has emphasized her sex during the campaign and has won support from many women because of her gender. Yet even though Senator Clinton has enthusiastically played the gender card, Senator Obama won the votes of a majority of women in 13 states and split the votes in another one. Surely, not all of his female supporters are anti-feminist, inauthentic, self-hating women.
Blaming sexism for her loss in the Democratic delegate count will set back the cause of women in politics. A new Brookings Institution study finds that the "fundamental reason for women's under representation is that they do not run for office." The most effective way to make that gap permanent is to convince women that they have no chance to win.
Senator Clinton should take pride in what she has accomplished. Equally important, though, her campaign should accept responsibility for its failings. A combination of her mistakes on strategy and Obama's gifts, not discrimination, doomed her candidacy.