Post Mortem on Clinton's Candidacy: Skipping a Step

I have made unmistakably clear in previous posts (here and here) that I am no fan of Hillary Clinton. The latter stages of the 2008 Democratic nominating process were never for me a matter of choosing between two wonderful candidates, as some people described it (before things became ugly). Obama seemed fairly promising, admittedly with open questions about the actual content of his "change we can believe in" slogan; but to me, Clinton was never a serious option. It was, therefore, not a choice of the "greater of two goods" but between someone who appeared to hold genuine promise and someone whom I simply did not trust.

This is not to pile on Clinton in the wake of her withdrawal from the race but simply to acknowledge up front that I have publicly expressed a strong viewpoint about Clinton and whether she should have been the nominee. Today, though, I want to look at Clinton's loss through the lens of women's rights. While many people in the last week have expressed the opinion that Clinton's campaign was historic -- which it surely was -- the nature of the breakthrough has, I think, been seriously misunderstood. The surprising thing about the Clinton candidacy is not that she made "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling, as she eloquently but inaccurately put it. She, in fact, crashed through the glass ceiling so successfully and so completely that she was then able to be evaluated on the merits -- and she lost. While it's surely true that she lost votes and took many cheap shots because of the continuing stain of sexism in American society, my take on the campaign's outcome is that her success in making most people forget about sex was ultimately the basis of her (quite appropriate) undoing. She said, "Don't think of me as a woman, think of me as a potential president." Too many people responded, "OK, but you would not be a good president."

The frustrating thing from the standpoint of someone who has long identified himself as a feminist is that we seem to have skipped a step. We grew up knowing that women could not be elected president (or vice president) because they were women. I'm just old enough to remember hoping that Frances (Sissy) Farenthold would be the Democrats' nominee for Vice President in 1972; but it was obvious even to someone just entering adolescence that she had no chance because she was a woman. (She came in second at the convention, but she had only 13% of the delegate vote.) Society was changing, but it hadn't changed nearly enough. With the subsequent decades showing much slower progress and frequent signs of backlash on gender issues (with, for example, former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder being ridiculed for crying publicly in 1988, contributing to the end of her nascent thoughts of a presidential bid), it seemed grimly possible that we might never reach the point that we reached this year.

Given that we went through a long period where women could not be elected because they were women, and that the ultimate goal is to reach a point where a woman could win or lose without sex or gender being an issue at all, it at least seemed plausible that there might be some period in which a woman might win specifically because she is a woman. Certainly, it would not be appealing to elect a woman only because she was a woman, but at least one could picture a situation in which being a woman was a big plus for a candidate. "We've gone too long without a woman president. Let's go out of our way to elect a woman at long last."

Thinking along these lines might underlie to a certain degree the notion that it was Hillary Clinton's "turn." Certainly, no individual politician has any claim to be in line to be president; but it might well be defensible to imagine that, as the first woman who could unquestionably get past all of the old anti-woman biases, she ought to be someone whom forward-looking people would affirmatively embrace. Being a woman would be a big asset, at least for one election, at which point it could then become a non-issue for future elections.

Clinton's ultimate failure in her quest for the nomination was, I am suggesting, therefore a matter of accelerated (or perhaps punctuated, in the language of evolutionary theory) social change. She had the resume, she had the drive, she had the connections, she had the money advantage going into the primaries, she was a force to be reckoned with. She stumbled, however, not on gendered issues but on issues that would cause trouble for any candidate, male or female. She had voted the wrong way on a defining issue and could not offer a plausible explanation or justification for that vote that resonated with voters. She stumbled badly in an early debate on the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. She voted for a resolution labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, suggesting that she had not learned from her previous errors. In the end, these and other matters large and small contributed to her reasonably being viewed as inauthentic, a triangulator, too much a politician and too little a leader.

If Barack Obama had lost the nomination, the question would have arisen as to whether his loss was due to racism. I could easily imagine, however, a primary season in which a narrative arose in which Obama simply had failed to fill in his "hope" agenda with enough detail to give people confidence in his potential presidency. This, in fact, was the fate suffered by Gary Hart in 1984. Notwithstanding all of the minor issues of that campaign (changing his name, Donna Rice, etc.), the big narrative became whether his "new ideas" campaign in fact had any new ideas at all. Walter Mondale's "Where's the beef?" line in a debate put Hart into a defensive mode from which he never recovered. Had something like that happened to Obama this spring, we could never have been certain how much of a role race still played in his defeat, but we at least know that this kind of narrative can sink a white candidate, too. Similarly, I find it very easy to imagine that what sank Hillary Clinton this year would have sunk any man.

Given the relative closeness of the primary race this year for the Democrats, it is undeniably possible that sexism was more of a net drag for Clinton than race was for Obama and that the difference decided the outcome. I doubt it, but it's possible. As someone deeply committed to women's rights but who strongly opposed Hillary Clinton's candidacy, though, I think that the real breakthrough of 2008 is that Clinton lost because she deserved to lose. Skipping a step is frustrating, but I am more confident than ever that there will be a woman sworn in as president someday soon. Clinton's pioneering work will have been essential to making that happen. Her loss in 2008, however, is evidence that women's rights have already made enormous strides forward.

Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

[Note: Starting today, I will be the regular "Thursday blogger" on Dorf on Law. My thanks to Mike for giving me this opportunity. I look forward to posting essays on politics, tax law, economics, NBA refereeing, and many other topics on Thursdays to come.]