Bill Clinton won the White House with only 43% of the popular vote. The electorate has been deeply divided ever since. Seen in this context alone, it’s not at all surprising that the race for the Democratic nomination is still going on and that the vote is so close. Voters are torn, but not because they are choosing the lesser of two evils but between two excellent and compelling candidates. They also happen to be the vessels for something much larger than themselves. This year the Democrats are on their way to redressing historic wrongs. Who would have thought they would have to choose between electing the first woman or the first African American? Taking the wide view of history, there is little doubt that women have suffered inequality more than anyone else. In that sense, their time has not only come, it is long overdue. When it comes to American history it’s more of a toss up. In some respects, one could argue, the deprivation of Blacks has been greater, and most certainly more mean spirited. In truth, who deserves it more, is a silly argument. Being a woman or being a person of color has been decidedly a disadvantage when it comes to the reigns of power, public or private.
So this election has put many of us in a bind. It’s divided families and friends. My college classmate Letty Pogrebin, a founder of Ms Magazine, supports Clinton; her writer daughter Abigail, Obama. They were interviewed some months back by the PBS Now program. Their choices were, to a large degree, generational. Letty and hers, and I have other friends with similar views, have been fighting the battle all of their lives. They understand how much progress has been made, and also how little. Abigail, the beneficiary of their struggle, feels in a sense more confident. Her feminism, no less fervent, allows her the freedom to select, even a man. Most of us find ourselves in the same situation, taking sides often with strong conviction, but absent the hard choice presented, we could easily be in the other’s camp.
At this moment, it appears as I have consistently believed, that Barack Obama will win the nomination but by a very close vote. Pundits will glibly tell us why and historians will have their say in the years to come. While the victory will be numerically slim, it seems to me that, given the odds at the start, its an accomplishment that can’t be underestimated. Here comes a still relatively unknown African American up against a field of distinguished long time public servants including the best known woman in the country, perhaps in the world. She is not merely known, but the presumptive nominee with a commanding, seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls. She is articulate and well schooled, the better debater, and she has as her surrogate the most popular and iconic figure in the party. It’s the two for one in reverse, and Bill has spared no effort in making it possible for her to virtually be in two places at one time. Against all of this, not to mention the assumption that an African American could never come close much less win the nomination, Barack Obama is taking the prize. In that sense, one has to look at his win as a relative landslide.
I started out by saying that both candidates are vessels for something larger than themselves. How they handled that has also made the difference. Clinton’s most unshakable support is coming from women who think their time has come. They are absolutely right. In some respects, I think their candidate has made too little of that, except defensively. The diner scene in New Hampshire and being the victim of male (Obama and Edwards) abuse in debates. But in the end, she seemed to be more committed to the “me” than to the vessel. It isn’t that women are entitled at long last, but that she (who suffered such indignities at the hands of that surrogate) is entitled. It is a subtle but huge difference, one that may account for the margin of loss. In many respects, Clinton would have been better off not running on experience, but more overtly as a woman.
Barack Obama, I would suggest, was much more in tune with the vessel thing. He, as an African American living in a still color-aware country, required a totally different strategy. He had to run a color-agnostic campaign. It made him initially suspect in the Black community and, as noted in an earlier post, among traditional leaders like John Lewis (who subsequently changed sides). He resisted being the Black candidate while never hiding who he was or where he came from. He most certainly references the struggle in his speeches, but only as one of many points. I’m not suggesting that Obama’s run isn’t about him – ego comes with the candidate territory – but that not once has that come across as his primary motive. Clinton’s, I’m a fighter who doesn’t give up, sends a different signal. Perhaps it’s marginal, but in a close race every little difference counts.
We have two top tier candidates who engender passionate support. The media will tell you that they reflect the deeply divided electorate that we’ve lived with these last years. They will be wrong. Ideologically there is little light between Obama and Clinton, between his supporters and hers. They will find a way of coming together and so will we. And John McCain? Take note in that ’92 campaign George H.W. Bush who had been much admired for his foreign policy including the deft management of a war in Iraq, lost the election over “the economy stupid”. In retrospect, some argue, perceived much weaker than it was. There’s no doubt about this economy and no one would call his son’s handling of diplomacy or the war, supported by John McCain from the start, deft. Bush got only 37% of the vote in ‘92. John McCain, remember that number as Barack Obama and a unified Democratic party catches a glimpse of you in the rear view mirror.
Hillary and Barack, thank you for making us all proud to be Americans.