The night after Barack Obama and Hillary’s secret meeting at Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Washington home, Clinton supporters waited with bated breath for information on what was discussed and looked forward to a mysterious campaign event her people had scheduled for June 7.As they waited for what would be a well-crafted concession speech and endorsement of Obama, the obituaries for their candidate’s failed presidential bid continued to pour in, though at a less steady pace than before (Throughout the Democratic primary, the media seemed prematurely intent on declaring the race over).
Any eulogy required a best of compilation of Clinton’s campaign blunders: underestimating the caucus states, misreading the political climate (Obama’s “change” easily trumping her favored “experience”), relying almost exclusively on old party stalwarts for campaign contributions (whose donations could not top $2,300) instead of capitalizing on internet donations in smaller sums, revisionist history (the Bosnia sniper fire affair) and figuring the race would be finished by Super Tuesday.
Some factors were out of her hands, like Florida and Michigan’s decisions to move up their primaries and in doing so, breaking DNC rules and discounting their votes or John Edwards’ impressive #2 showing early on in Iowa – drawing votes away from Clinton and setting long shot Obama up as a viable nominee in the public’s eye. And certainly, sexism played some part.
Without descending into a game of Minority Olympics or a racism vs. sexism tug of war, any analysis of Clinton’s failed campaign wouldn’t be complete without considering the sexism question, just as any review of Obama’s successful campaign would be incomplete without factoring in the racism of some voters.
Gender, what Gloria Steiniem in a New York Times opinion piece on the primary called “the most restricting force in American life,” was an issue because subtle gender discrimination pervaded a segment of the news media’s perspective on Clinton.
Where the media was concerned, Obama’s race was a kind of shield, but no protective cover existed for gender. Racism was something to take seriously, to delicately screen for, but no such screen existed for the sexism that ran rampant in the media’s coverage of Clinton’s campaign.
Male television pundits were some of the main offenders. Chris Matthews called Clinton a “she-devil” and his cohort Tucker Carlson advanced public discourse with, “Every time I hear Hillary Clinton speak, I involuntarily cross my legs.”
In an October opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, conservative speechwriter Peggy Noonan doubted Clinton’s ability to project womanliness.
“Some time back I said she doesn’t have to prove she is a man, she has to prove she is a woman. Her problem is not her sex, as she and her campaign pretend. That she is a woman is a boon to her, a source of latent power. But to make it work, she has to seem like a woman,” she wrote.
Public debate over Obama focused largely on substantial issues, on gauging his experience, or understanding his beliefs. But for Hillary, whose experience few doubt, the question was always of her character: her abrasive personality, her shrill voice and ice queen demeanor.
“How do we beat the bitch?” a supporter asked Republican nominee John McCain at a November campaign events, to laughs from the audience and no rebuke from McCain himself.
As Andrew Stephen wrote in the New Statesman, “Had his supporter asked ‘How do we beat the nigger?’ and McCain reacted in the same way, however, his presidential hopes would deservedly have gone up in smoke.”
In an election cycle particularly marred by irrelevant curatorial criticism (See: Obama, Barack. American flag-less lapel), there was the great cleavage debacle of summer ’07. Robin Givhan , a Washington Post style critic took issue with a neckline Clinton wore on the senate floor, setting off a frenzy in the media and blogosphere.
“No one wants to see that. But really, it was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!” Givhan wrote.
When Clinton made her teary-eyed case for the presidency in a diner, winning the New Hampshire primary the next day, critics called it a ploy. When a heckler shouted, “Iron my shirt!” at a political rally, it was part of a vast, Clintonian conspiracy.
As flawed as it was, Clinton’s campaign made a huge impact on the prospects of a woman president. She consistently outperformed her male rivals in debates, picked up votes from the segment of the population thought most averse to her (white, middle class males) and, when she found her voice (the definitive voice, perhaps; she had many) in the eleventh hour of the campaign, it was both impassioned and authoritative.
What’s next for Clinton? She has said she wouldn’t rule out the vice-presidency, but that ultimately the possibility of Obama-Clinton ’08 is up to the first half of that ticket.
Obama has good reason to consider Clinton as his running mate. He’s had trouble courting the very same older white women who flocked to Clinton. Recapturing a divided party would be less of a task with Hillary attached to the ticket.
Still, Vice President Clinton would be a hard title to swallow. Vice presidents, glorified figureheads who hold policies that will mirror the president’s if they’re required to step up, must never overshadow the president. One could argue that Dick Cheney reconstructed our collective idea of the vice presidency, but Cheney’s power playing was all behind the scenes. After completely stepping out from under the umbrella of her husband and essentially redefining the Clinton name, the vice-presidency seems a very humbling honor.
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