1/17/08 Augusta Chron. A04
It's not about race or gender, we keep hearing from the
Democratic front-runners. Except of course it is about race and gender, even
though both should be rendered irrelevant by virtue of the candidates'
participation in the game.
Simply put: Identity politics is predicated on oppression. Yet it's hard to
claim you're a victim when you're on top.
Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton - Ivy League-educated U.S. senators -
can't win for winning. Yet both have crafted their candidacies around the
idea of overcoming historical obstacles and becoming firsts of their kind.
To cross that final frontier - to become the first woman or the first
African-American to be nominated for president - each has to artfully tear
down something of what their party has built up. Unavoidably, the white has
to go after the black; the man has to attack the woman.
How to do that without inviting charges of sexism or racism is the trick
and, thus far, Obama seems the better magician.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that Obama's attraction to black
voters cuts a swath through a field the Clintons have been carefully
cultivating for decades. No matter how many black church services they've
attended, they can't compete on the pulpit with a real African-American
Despite their protests to the contrary, both Obama and Clinton have been
playing to their respective demographics. Obama hasn't overtly made his
campaign about race, but he didn't have to. In Clintonian tradition, he has
let surrogates make the case for him. Oprah Winfrey laid it out plainly
enough when she told a throng in Columbia, S.C.:
"We don't have to just dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream
into reality. I believe that now is the time for somebody like Barack Obama."
"Somebody like Barack" and "the dream" don't require much elaboration. The
dream was the Rev. Martin Luther King's, of a future when blacks and whites
lived in harmony. And though Obama is unique in his broad appeal, Winfrey
was clearly urging voters to put an African-American in the White House.
For her part, Clinton has insisted that women shouldn't vote for her just
because of gender. "I am not asking you to vote for me because I am a
woman," she told a crowd in New Hampshire. "I am asking you to vote for me
because I believe I am the most qualified person to hit the ground running
Except when she is urging women to vote for her because she's a woman.
Speaking at her all-female alma mater, Wellesley College, Clinton called
upon women to rally against "the all-boys club of presidential politics.
We're ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling."
Obviously, and gratefully, Clinton will accept the woman vote and Obama will
accept the black vote while professing a unified, color- and gender-blind
vision. But to win, each has to borrow from the other's camp - Obama needs
women and Clinton needs blacks.
And each risks losing the prize by going too negative, as Clinton recently
learned when she dared trespass on the sacred territory of Dr. King. In
trying to neutralize Obama's success as an orator and underscore his short
list of accomplishments, she effectively said that Obama is no King.
Then she went too far and, noting that no matter King's own contributions,
the Civil Rights Act required the signature of a president, in this case the
Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson.
Whatever she meant - fair or not - that's a hole deep enough to bury
Hillary's nomination and her husband's legacy.
We can be certain that Obama's surrogates will milk that mistake even as he
and Clinton declare a public truce. Clinton will continue to insist that
she's not interested in defining her campaign as a gender issue even as she
continues to invoke the glass ceiling, as she did yet again Sunday on Meet
In the end, the Democratic Party may be hostage to its own noble intentions.
By co-opting equality as their party's identity and making victimhood their
rallying cry, the battle for race and gender necessarily has become a fight
between race and gender.
If a Clinton victory is viewed as a victory for all women, then her defeat
can only be viewed as a defeat for women. The same goes for Obama and
It shouldn't be about race and gender, but it is. And the Democratic Party
made it this way.