To watch 60 Minutes last Sunday night was to almost feel sorry for Hillary Clinton. There she was, the first woman to have a real shot at becoming president of the United States of America, and it seemed that all Katie Couric wanted to ask Clinton about was her opponent, Barack Obama, the first African-American to have a real shot at becoming president.
We'd just seen Steve Croft interview Obama, and Croft appeared to resist the temptation to ask a string of questions about what it's like to run against Clinton. Impressively, there was no look of frustration on Clinton's face, no hint that she wanted nothing more than to lunge at Couric and grasp for her throat.
But make no mistake, she is playing defense. This woman who'd been all but anointed the Democratic nominee and who'd supposedly raised so much money that no challenger could possibly keep up, has had to loan herself $5 million, reshuffle the personnel at the top of her campaign and reshape her message. In appearances in Virginia last weekend, Clinton was almost apologetic about the differences in style between her and Obama—her speeches were heavy with policy specifics, she noted, and light on rhetorical flourishes. Meanwhile, she's started to ratchet up the high-minded visionary stuff in her talks in hopes of closing one of the few gaps between her and her opponent—the inspiration gap.In the wake of the split decision on Feb. 5, the pundits and pollsters said the immediate schedule favored Obama, what with caucuses in Washington, Nebraska and Maine (for whatever reason, he beats her badly in caucuses) and primaries in Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and D.C. (places with sizable black populations). So far, they've been right, and Clinton is forced to count on voters in Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio for survival.
Not only that, she's also begun arguing that delegates from Michigan and Florida should be seated at the convention in August, even though all candidates agreed not to campaign in those states and stood idly by as the Democratic Party stripped them of their delegates, punishment for the no-no of moving their primaries up before Feb. 5. Clinton's move is sheer desperation. Seating delegates from Michigan and Florida, where Clinton won meaningless primaries, would be patently unfair, especially given that Obama's name wasn't even on the Michigan ballot.
For Clinton to cling to Michigan and Florida would be to reinforce the perception that she lusts for power and will do anything to get it. She should gracefully let them go and focus instead on winning in places like Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kentucky and Oregon. After all, she is still doing very well among lower-income Americans who believe she is their champion.
Indeed, the perception of Hillary Clinton is a mighty force. She is perceived to be cold, calculating, strategic, highly political—even mean (this is a good time to note that CityBeat endorsed Obama in part because of Clinton's politically motivated vote to give the president the authority to attack Iraq). In men, such qualities are ho-hum. But she dare not point that out, lest she be seen as a whiny feminist victim.
Those attributes help create the biggest obstacle of them all—the perception that she's unelectable in November, when the Democrat will need the support of independents to beat John McCain. Women Democrats, in particular, have struggled mightily with the viability issue. We know this because we read it in their blogs and in comments on other people's blogs. Many of them so badly want to support Clinton. When will another woman have this kind of chance? Will we have to wait for another first lady who has political chops of her own? A senator or governor who's had to be cold and calculating to get where she is (and might have to battle the same sexist perceptions)? For many women, however, the thought of eight more years of Republican rule is just too much to bear.
It's really too bad for Clinton that she just happened to run up against a transcendent figure in Obama, whose message of unity and extraordinary gift for oratory is appealing to those who have been disaffected, disconsolate, disillusioned or just apathetic. And it's ironic that what has helped Clinton reach this peak—her marriage—is also helping to do her in; some folks bristle at the prospect of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton.
That's a shame, because Clinton's worked incredibly hard to get to where she is. With the help of the Vietnam War and the oppression of black Americans, she transformed herself while still in college from a Goldwater Republican to populist Democrat. She had political aspirations long before she met Bill, who, in Hillary, saw someone who could help him get to where he was going. She excelled in law school and earned a position on the team that advised the House Judiciary Committee on the Watergate scandal and an appointment by Jimmy Carter to the Legal Services Corporation's board of directors.
This is not intended to be a political obituary; Clinton is far from out of the race. It's just to say that if she does lose, in some ways, it will be too bad—for all of us.
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