March 05, 2008

Your -ism is Worse than My -ism

Someone I know accused me of sexism for a couple of my recent posts about Hillary Clinton. This, of course, is a trap; if you can't register unease about a candidate without someone accusing you of one of the many -isms at play in this election (sexism, racism) then you can't have a conversation.

First, the now-requisite disclaimers: I voted and volunteered for Hillary in both of her runs for the Senate here in New York. As much as her carpetbagger status made me a little uncomfortable, I did see the value in having a junior senator whose name recognition would confer almost instant senior status. Before he started making vaguely racist comments in South Carolina, I was a big fan of Bill Clinton and even waited in line for about six hours to get "My Life" signed at a Barnes & Noble in midtown. I could not argue with anyone over Hillary's credentials, her achievements, and her work ethic and will definitely vote for her should she wrestle the nomination away from Obama. After all, it still matters whether we elect a Democrat or a Republican to the White House. It's the judges, stupid.

Of course, I think it's incredible that, for the first time in this country's history, a woman has risen to become such a viable candidate. But there's a simple fact: no matter how capable Hillary Clinton is, if she hadn't been married to Bill Clinton, she wouldn't have been the presumptive front-runner at the start of the primary season.

It's important to remember that that first viable female candidate is not Nancy Pelosi, Olympia Snowe, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Condoleeza Rice, Madeline Albright or any other woman on either side of the political divide who came to power on her own merits. The first viable female candidate for president is the wife of a former president. You can no more take that part of her identity away from her than you could Obama's Kenyan roots, John McCain's history as former POW or Mike Huckabee's status as God's messenger on Earth.

I do not think her status as a former first lady should necessarily be held against her -- if she's the best person for the job, then she's the best person for the job -- but neither do I think it can be explained away as inconsequential to her place in this year's election. It's an indelible part of her biography and very much a part of what she means when she cites her experience with health care and foreign policy. Yes, she has since had to prove herself in a marathon campaign, but she certainly had an advantage when she entered the race, one not afforded to the "skinny kid with a funny name." But, if she hadn't been married to Bill Clinton, could she have courted top-level support and major donors to build her then-nascent campaign? (And, as I mentioned in a previous post, it has helped her since then: any candidate who wasn't a former first lady would have been written off after losing eleven primaries in a row. John Edwards bowed out after losing just three.) If feminism is about having a level playing field, Clinton started the ballgame in the luxury box.

It can also not be discounted that if Bill Clinton had been unpopular, then Hillary's qualifications to serve and lead would have been moot. Laura Bush may be a midnight-oil-burning genius for all anyone knows, but I doubt she'd garner much enthusiasm or support if she ran for so much as PTA president right now.

Hillary Clinton's candidacy is certainly a step in the right direction towards helping the U.S. catch up to the U.K., India, Pakistan, and other countries that have had female heads of state, but it seems to me there's still a glass ceiling, albeit a lower one, at play this year. Imagine putting your daughter to bed on November 4, 2008 if Clinton wins the presidency. "Yes, Virginia, one day you too can marry a president, watch him weather trumped-up impeachment charges, have him leave office with record-level approval ratings, and then launch your own political career."

That's not to say that there aren't a lot of intelligent people who have reconciled all of these facts and are still able to base their support for Clinton on her strengths as a candidate, manager, and leader. I've read much of her policy positions and find little with which to disagree. I would never denigrate my friends who support Clinton by saying that a vote against Obama means that they are racist. But I often find that Clinton supporters are rarely as charitable towards Obama supporters such as myself, dismissing us -- and him -- as naive idealists with no concept of the political reality of post-Rovian Washington. Give us some credit. There are a lot of intelligent people who can see beyond Obama's rhetoric of hope and change to recognize that no one person will turn Washington into a Utopian Shangri-La. But just as I think it's important to recognize what kind of hope Obama supporters talk about when they talk about hope, it's also important to recognize what kind of feminism Clinton is talking about when she she talks about feminism.

(Oh, and to those who say that it's sexist to refer to the candidate by her first name when her opponent is typically referred to by his last, I say take a look at her campaign signs. One could go to a Hillary Clinton rally and probably not see the name Clinton printed on anything.)

Posted by Doug at March 5, 2008 12:32 PM