March 5, 2008—The campaign press corps missed what may have been the most important comment in the Feb. 26 debate – when Hillary Clinton reminded women that their chance of electing the first female president was slipping away.
The impact of this appeal to women to rally around one of their own – combined with well-coordinated negative attacks on Barack Obama – worked wonders in the March 4 contests, much like a similar strategy helped Clinton overcome a surprise loss in Iowa with a rebound victory in New Hampshire.
Sen. Clinton has vowed not to play the gender card – sometimes even as she was playing it – but it may represent the strongest suit in her political deck. In Ohio, in particular, she used it to reestablish her electoral dominance among middle-aged and older white women.
On March 4, Clinton won Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island, while Obama carried only Vermont. But what was striking – especially about the Ohio exit polls – was how Clinton solidified her hold on white women and trounced her black male rival among white voters in all but the youngest demographic group.
Overall in Ohio, white women went for Clinton by 67 percent to 31 percent, but the numbers were surely even higher among older white women when one looks at the rejection of Obama among white voters 30-years-old and over.
Though white voters 17-to-29-years-old narrowly favored Obama, 48 percent to 47 percent, whites 30-to-44-years-old voted for Clinton by 60 percent to 40 percent; whites 45-to-59-years-old backed Clinton 66 percent to 32 percent and whites over 60 favored Clinton by a whopping 72 percent to 24 percent. [See CNN’s Ohio exit poll.]
So, at least for now, the Clinton campaign strategy has achieved two key goals – to play the gender card in a positive way to unite white women behind Hillary and to play the race card in a negative way to “ghetto-ize” Obama as the “black candidate” who is somehow unsettling to whites.
By defining Obama more by his race, the Clinton campaign also gained an important wedge issue that helped drive Hispanic voters to Clinton’s side, a development that proved important in Texas. [See CNN’s Texas exit poll.]
In addition, the Clinton campaign’s sub-rosa attempts to dirty up Obama by planting negative stories about him in friendly media outlets – as well as “working the refs” by insisting that the press corps needed to be more critical of Obama – contributed to Clinton's success by helping to generate more critical coverage of the Illinois senator.
While the Clinton strategy finally seems to be clicking, it has alarmed some Democratic leaders who now view this summer's convention in Denver as likely to be a showdown between two bitterly divided camps.
Hillary Clinton has made clear she will insist on the nomination even if she trails in elected delegates, and Obama’s side is sure to be furious if the “establishment” rips the prize away from its candidate. Whoever emerges the bloodied victor will face a daunting task of reuniting the party and defeating Republican John McCain in November.
The Democrats’ descent into “identity politics” was always a danger for a party with two trailblazing candidates representing the first serious chance for a black or a woman to be elected president. But the slippery slope largely was avoided prior to the Iowa caucuses.
Obama shunned overt references to race, instead stressing his appeal as a candidate who could bring unity to the country. Clinton slid into gender appeal only on occasion, like when she was confronting criticism for a controversial vote on declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “global terrorist organization.”
On Nov. 1, 2007, after a bruising Democratic debate against male rivals, Clinton returned to her alma mater, Wellesley College, and declared that “in so many ways, this all women’s college prepared me to compete in the all boys’ club of presidential politics.”
Clinton then urged Wellesley students to help her win the presidency. “We’re ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling,” Clinton said. [NYT, Nov. 2, 2007]
But it was only after Obama stunned Clinton with a decisive victory in the Iowa caucuses that she laid down the gender card in spades.
In New Hampshire, Clinton presented herself as an embattled woman facing unfair treatment. On Jan. 7, a day before the primary, her voice cracked when responding to a question about how she managed to hold up.
“It’s not easy, it’s not easy,” Clinton responded slowly in a softer voice than she normally uses. “I couldn’t do it if I did not passionately believe it was the right thing to do. It’s very personal to me.”
As her eyes grew moist, she added, “It’s about our country, it’s about our kids’ future.” Her wet-eyed moment – a woman daring to show her vulnerable side – immediately became a campaign turning point.
The feminist-solidarity vote for Hillary Clinton got another boost during a final speech in Salem, New Hampshire, when two young men began heckling her with the sexist chant, “Iron my shirts!”
Upon hearing the obnoxious chant, Clinton called for the lights in the auditorium to be turned up. Then, seeing the two young men near the front of the audience, she said, “Oh, the remnants of sexism alive and well.”
As security guards escorted the pair from the auditorium, Clinton transformed the incident into a case study of how men oppress women: “As I think has just been abundantly demonstrated, I am also running to break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling.”
Clinton’s comments drew a standing ovation from the crowd and widespread media attention on New Hampshire’s news shows. One source inside the Clinton camp said the “iron my shirts” comment angered and energized women in particular.
The two hecklers were later identified as Nick Gemelli and Adolfo Gonzalez Jr., associated with Toucher & Rich, a white-guy-oriented talk show on Boston’s WBCN radio that broadcasts content intended for “immature audiences.”
In a later show, the host hailed Gonzalez as someone who “single-handedly changed the course of American politics.” But instead of explaining how Gonzalez achieved that feat, the show veered off into a mocking discussion of “Afros” worn by black baseball players.
The show’s Web site listed a few “fun facts” about Gonzalez: “He weighs 345 lbs. … He couldn’t speak ANY language until he was five. …He has never had health insurance. … He talks to himself. … He has a very messy room.”
Rather than male oppressors protecting the presidential glass ceiling, the two hecklers came across as dumb-guy losers pulling a juvenile shock-jock stunt.
On the morning of the New Hampshire primary, feminist Gloria Steinem added fuel to the “identity politics” fire by arguing in a New York Times op-ed that American women have suffered more political and economic discrimination than American black men.
“Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any woman (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter),” Steinem wrote. [NYT, Jan. 8, 2008]
Steinem’s historical arguments threw down a gauntlet to a bitter debate over who’s the bigger victim, blacks or women.
American blacks could reasonably cite their experience with generations of slavery followed by generations of brutal segregation in making the case that giving black men the vote after the Civil War was relatively meaningless.
It was not until the 1960s, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights laws, that the United States began protecting the franchise of African-Americans across the South, where Jim Crow laws and lynchings had long held blacks down. Even today, blacks are disenfranchised through many legal and illegal stratagems.
American women were denied the vote until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
After her New Hampshire comeback, Clinton insisted she would never play the “gender card” – even as she continued playing it.
“You have a woman running to break the highest and hardest glass ceiling,” she said in a Jan. 13 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” before adding: “I don't think either of us wants to inject race or gender in this campaign.”
However, the Clinton campaign saw the advantage in defining Obama as the “black candidate.” For instance, as Obama was winning a decisive victory in South Carolina, former President Bill Clinton sought to minimize the significance by recalling that black candidate Jesse Jackson also had won in South Carolina.
Bill Clinton’s remark drew sharp criticism from many Democratic leaders and prompted more black voters to begin lining up behind Obama. However, among some whites and Hispanics, the growing appearance of Obama as the “black candidate” eroded his desired image as someone who transcends racial and ethnic barriers.
Hispanic opposition to Obama helped Hillary Clinton win Super Tuesday victories in California, Arizona and New Mexico, but Obama made some inroads with white voters, especially men, in winning states like Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota and Utah.
After Obama then reeled off 11 consecutive victories, including a strong win in Wisconsin, Clinton drew a line in the big states of Texas and Ohio.
Her strategy amounted to solidifying her base among white women and benefiting from tensions between blacks and Hispanics – while going harshly negative on Obama and questioning his fitness to be Commander in Chief.
Even as Sen. Clinton played the victim, her campaign was acting the part of bully, spreading “opposition research” about Obama’s association with indicted real-estate developer Tony Rezko, about past campaign donations from ex-student radicals and about his alleged links to Muslims.
Then at the Feb. 26 debate in Ohio, Clinton personally distorted Obama’s statements, echoing charges lodged by President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain that Obama had advocated bombing Pakistan.
“He basically threatened to bomb Pakistan, which I don’t think was a particularly wise position to take,” Clinton said, prompting a polite defense from Obama that he had actually advocated a military strike against al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan if the Pakistani government refused to act.
Clinton dissembled again when NBC’s Tim Russert asked why – especially since she has lent her campaign $5 million – she continues to refuse to release her tax returns as Obama and many other candidates for high office have done.
“You refuse to release that joint return, even though former President Clinton has had significant overseas business dealings,” Russert said. “Why won’t you release your tax return so the voters of Ohio, Texas, Vermont, Rhode Island know exactly where you and your husband got your money, who might be in part bankrolling your campaign?”
“I will release my tax returns,” Sen. Clinton answered. “I have consistently said that.”
“Before next Tuesday’s primary?” Russert pressed.
“Well, I can’t get it together by then, but I will certainly work to get it together,” Clinton said. “I’m a little busy right now; I hardly have time to sleep.”
Contrary to the impression that Clinton sought to create about the unreasonableness of Russert’s request, the issue of her joint tax returns – like the question of who is financing her husband’s presidential library – is not new.
Sen. Clinton has been dragging her heels for months about releasing the tax returns, and the Clinton campaign later clarified that she has no intention of making her tax returns public in the near future.
Also, as she tried to portray herself as the victim, Clinton complained that she is often asked the first question.
“Could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time,” she said. “And I don’t mind. You know, I’ll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious. And if anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.”
But perhaps most importantly, Clinton made her appeal to women – especially older women – that their dream of electing a woman president was in jeopardy. “Obviously, I am thrilled to be running to be the first woman president,” she reminded her supporters.
In the days before the key March 4 primaries, Clinton essentially reprised her New Hampshire presentation as the oppressed woman.
As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted, “Hillary once more wallowed in gender inequities, asserting that it’s harder for her to run than her opponent – a black man with an exotic name that most Americans hadn’t even heard a year ago.”
Dowd quoted Clinton’s comments on “Nightline,” where she said: “Every so often I just wish that it were a little more of an even playing field, but, you know, I play on whatever field is out there.”
Dowd added that Clinton had become “tangled in her own victimhood,” noting the senator’s comment that “a lot of women project their own feelings and their lives on to me, and they see how hard this is. It’s hard. It’s hard being a woman out there.” [NYT, March 2, 2008]
After the March 4 primaries, Dowd returned to the same theme in a column entitled “Duel of Historical Guilts,” noting the coming Democratic crackup over whether women or blacks have the greater claim to victimhood.
“Some women in their 30s, 40s and early-50s who favor Barack Obama have a phrase to describe what they don’t like about Hillary Clinton: Shoulder-pad feminism,” Dowd wrote. “They feel that women have moved past that men-are-pigs, woe-is-me, sisters-must-stick-together, pantsuits-are-powerful era that Hillary’s campaign has lately revived with a vengeance.
“And they don’t like Gloria Steinem and other old-school feminists trying to impose gender discipline and a call to order on the sisters. As a woman I know put it: ‘Hillary doesn’t make it look like fun to be a woman. And her “I-have-been-victimized” campaign is depressing.’
“But Hillary — carried on the padded shoulders of the older women in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island who loved her ‘I Will Survive’ rallying cry that ‘I am a little older and I have earned every wrinkle on my face’ — has been saved to fight another day. “[NYT, March 5, 2008]
As I wrote on Jan. 10, just after the New Hampshire primary, the real danger of Democrats pitting the mistreatment of women against the mistreatment of blacks was that it “could trump a serious debate over the candidates’ differences on the Iraq War and other pressing issues.
“In the end, many Americans surely would be turned off by a high-profile squabble over who has the bigger historic grievance, American women or American blacks.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Hillary Plays a Risky Gender Card.”]
The Democrats now find themselves deep inside that ugly squabble.
Or, as Maureen Dowd put it after the March 4 contests, “The Democratic primary has become the ultimate nightmare of liberal identity politics. All the victimizations go tripping over each other and colliding, a competition of historical guilts. People will have to choose, which of America’s sins are greater, and which stain will have to be removed first. Is misogyny worse than racism, or is racism worse than misogyny? …
“Will Amerca’s racial past be expunged or America’s sexist past be expunged?”
As the politics is shaping up now, the ultimate irony may be that the Clinton campaign’s tricky use of both the “gender card” – to generate sympathy for Hillary Clinton – and the “race card” – to marginalize Barack Obama – may end up ensuring the election of John McCain, making him the 44th white guy in a row to get the presidency.
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This story was published on March 6, 2008.