Why Hillary Lost
Leslie Woodcock Tentler July 10, 2008 - 10:10am
Hillary’s campaign is over, and women like me are supposed to be mad. Like Hillary, I’m a product of the late 1960s and especially the women’s movement, which changed my life as well as hers. And like most veterans of that movement, I’m hungry for a woman president. (With conditions, however: no American version of Margaret Thatcher, thank you very much.)
But I’m not in fact angry at Hillary’s defeat-quite the contrary; I emerged some months back as an Obama supporter, rather to my surprise. Now I’m wondering how it happened, given what I thought were my feminist credentials. I’m trying to sort out my feelings about Hillary.
Perhaps the deepest reason for my defection—for so I secretly think of it—is my spectator status in politics. I care about politics, but it’s not my profession, not my life. As a result, my hunger for a female president is something less than all-consuming. Like Hillary, I was born into a world with only one woman senator, the late Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. I doubt that Hillary sees the present composition of the Senate, where she lives and works and has her being, as representing much improvement. That’s not true for me. Remembering the not-so-halcyon days of the 1950s, I’m quite dazzled by women’s political progress—sufficiently so, on most days, to experience an uncharacteristic patience with the system. I can still recall my childhood anxiety—it was on a short list of things I couldn’t ask my fervently Democratic parents—over whether it was OK to admire Margaret Chase Smith, given that she was a Republican.
My partisan upbringing largely accounts for my initial hesitations about Hillary’s candidacy. I was simply hungrier for a Democratic president than a female one. Hillary’s negatives were very high, as my sons—political junkies both—never tired of reminding me. And I knew an alarming number of men, good Democrats all, who genuinely loathed her. Was Hillary electable? I quickly came to doubt it. My doubts were amply reinforced during the fall of 2007, when I taught a course in American women’s history at Catholic University. My students were generally less conservative than their classmates and emphatically career-oriented. But with a few notable exceptions-one student was working in Hillary’s Washington campaign office-they were not attracted to the Clinton candidacy. When I tried to elicit their sympathy for what I then saw as Hillary’s dilemma—how, as a middle-aged woman, to be both respected and liked?—my students resisted vigorously. “Her problem is that she’s so unfeminine,” an otherwise bright young woman opined. Most of her classmates nodded in agreement.
What explains reactions of this sort? It would be difficult to characterize my female students as sexist. Nor would that adjective adequately describe (at least in terms of observable conduct) most of the men I knew who so vigorously opposed Hillary’s candidacy. My sons, natural egalitarians by all appearances, were members of this tribe, utterly unforgiving of Hillary’s votes on Iraq. I thought then, and the suspicion lingers, that middle-aged female authority was the real problem. Perhaps we all resent, at some level of our being, the mothers who disciplined as well as loved us—or didn’t love us enough. But plenty of middle-aged women exercise public authority today, which rather undercuts the argument. Most of the Hillary-haters I know have voted with evident enthusiasm for female governors or senators and speak admiringly of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
One might counter by saying that the presidency is different, that the prospect of a woman as commander-in-chief is what elicits resentment. The argument is plausible, but certainly less salient than it used to be. Ours is a world of high-ranking female military officers, not to mention female secretaries of state. And the nation has accepted, with remarkable equanimity, female casualties in Iraq. No one, it seems, is much bothered when mothers are shipped into combat zones—a taboo that I doubted would be broken in my lifetime. I’ve not encountered many young Americans who think that conscription, should it ever be reinstituted, shouldn’t affect women as well as men. As for the ever-more-numerous examples of women leaders in other countries—Margaret Thatcher, again—these would suggest to even the moderately informed that women are not natural pacifists.
It might just be that Hillary’s gender isn’t all that matters. There’s the legacy of Bill, to which Hillary is inevitably heir. Highly educated Democrats, who happen to be the ones I know best, tend toward idealism and a certain squeamishness when it comes to power. At least in retrospect, they are decidedly ambivalent about the Clinton presidency. Too much indiscipline, too much triangulation, too much enthusiasm for the war room. I suppose I’m among their number. Even in the earliest days of the campaign, when Barack Obama was just a footnote, I couldn’t forget that it was Hillary who had brought Dick Morris—the quintessence of political cynicism—to the Clinton White House. Nor did I like her campaign’s inner circle, most of them holdovers from White House days; I regarded them as unscrupulous and scandalously overpaid. I don’t really know what I expected—surely Sen. Obama’s top advisers, some of them veterans of Chicago politics, aren’t exactly high-minded good-government types. But given her intimate association with her husband’s presidency, Hillary was inevitably tainted by his uses and abuses of power. She was never able to represent, as a successful candidate must do, the prospect of a truly fresh beginning.
Then there’s the problem of Hillary’s background. She was raised a Republican, after all, which is hardly surprising for a Midwestern Methodist, particularly one from the suburban upper-middle class. My earliest political passion was for John F. Kennedy, of whom my father—a prominent trade unionist—was an influential supporter. Hers was apparently for Barry Goldwater. As a highly educated professional woman, Hillary seems today like a natural Democrat. But she’s still an odd fit for New York, which is where she chose to establish her bona fides as a politician. I think she’s paid a price for this, at least among certain voters, who are sure—quite unfairly, in my view—that she’s a phony. In part, it’s her alleged status as a “carpetbagger,” a distinction she shares with the late Robert Kennedy. But his Catholicism gave him a natural link to the tribal world of New York Democratic politics, and that’s something Hillary lacks. (Yes, I know she’s been elected twice with generous majorities; the problem is outsiders’ perceptions.) She might have been wise to have waited for an Illinois Senate seat to open. Who doubts that she would have won it—and in so doing frustrated the rise of her fatally formidable rival?
Just about everyone has pointed out that Hillary ran an inept campaign. (Add “incompetent” to “unscrupulous” and “overpaid” as adjectives for her top advisers.) It was dumb to have ignored the caucuses, dumber to have underestimated Barack Obama, and probably dumbest of all to have forgotten that Americans don’t like being told, even before they’ve cast their ballots, who the nominee will be. Despite her two Senate campaigns, moreover, Hillary had trouble forging an effective public style. Here gender was definitely at issue. How to dress, how to modulate one’s voice, how to strike a rhetorical balance between intellect and emotion—every woman who’s worked in a male-dominated field has wrestled with these problems, which don’t necessarily get easier as one ages. Even when I was mad at Hillary, I empathized with her stylistic awkwardness. I also wondered at times whether it didn’t indicate that no woman could ever be elected president.
In the end, however, Hillary found her campaign sea legs. In an implausible incarnation as Tribune of the Working Class, Hillary had verve, confidence, and—yes—authenticity. Late in March, I was waiting for a plane to Detroit at Washington’s National Airport, where I was surrounded by middle-aged men in union jackets—education directors, I surmised from their conversation, for their various locals. One of them was fulminating against what we in Detroit used to call a “runaway shop”—in this case a company that had moved its production to China, assisted by a tax break from the Bush administration. “Well, Hillary says she’s going to stop that kind of thing,” one of his colleagues responded. He might, from his tone, have been talking about FDR.
It’s true that Hillary in her working-class mode sometimes flirted with subliminal racism. Perhaps that was inevitable, given the background of her opponent and the recent history of the demographic group with whom she struck electoral pay-dirt. But it was ugly all the same, and it didn’t make me like Hillary any better. It was rhetorically wrong as well—backward-looking in a campaign season where change was the resonant theme.
An honest sorting out of my feelings does require more than cataloguing Hillary’s shortcomings, which—to be fair—do not come close to defining her. I’ve always respected her intelligence; I agree with most of her policy positions. We do differ on abortion, but I’ve disagreed on this issue with every Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter. Obama and Hillary are identically and uncritically prochoice, which makes Obama’s popularity among Catholic University students—he took an easy first place in a student poll some months back—particularly interesting. Why was he evidently given a pass by a number of prolife students? Come to think of it, I’ve given him a pass as well, since I feel for his candidacy an enthusiasm I haven’t felt for any Democrat in a very long time. Does age have something to do with it, I wonder—the age of the candidates, I mean? It’s Hillary’s cohort that’s most prominently associated with abortion-law reform and particularly with the argument that reproductive freedom is a human right. Obama, simply by being younger, can pose as heir to this revolution—too liberal to repudiate it, especially as a male, but not really responsible for it either. For many students at Catholic University, including some who value the freedoms won by Hillary’s cohort of women, she embodies all the negative fall-out of the 1960s. A vote for Hillary, by this confused logic, is a vote for heartless individualism and family disintegration. Obama, paradoxically, embodies hope for a more humane future.
But how can I reproach my students’ confusion? I lost my heart to Obama, too. It happened on the night of the Iowa caucuses, when I was moved to tears by his victory speech and the sight of all those extremely white voters cheering on a brown-skinned guy who had mastered—and somehow de-ethnicized—the rhetorical cadences of Martin Luther King Jr. My head, admittedly, responded with shock to this sudden infatuation. Despite the precedent of Abraham Lincoln and Obama’s evident talents, I had serious misgivings about plucking a president almost straight from the Illinois legislature. But the heart has its reasons, to quote Pascal and Woody Allen (I invoke the latter advisedly). On the day of the so-called Potomac primary, I cast an excited vote for Obama. My husband, cheered on by our daughter, joined that tiny minority of Washington Democrats who opted for Hillary Clinton. He might never have another chance to vote for a woman presidential candidate, he told me; he couldn’t pass it up.
Now, I’m supposed to be the feminist in this marital duo. So what did my vote signify? Perhaps I’m a latter-day version of Lucy Stone, the nineteenth-century women’s-rights activist who broke with her more militant colleagues over support for the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution—the one that prohibits denying the right to vote on the grounds of race. Because that amendment did not enfranchise women, feminists like Susan B. Anthony decided to oppose it. Better, in their view, that the electorate be composed of white men only than made up of all adult men regardless of status or education. Lucy Stone and others like her, none of whom enjoys particularly good press among feminists today, certainly regretted that the Fifteenth Amendment did not, as Anthony had proposed, forbid the denial of suffrage on the grounds of sex as well as race. But they did not give women’s rights the absolute priority that Anthony did. The times were evidently right for securing Negro suffrage; women’s suffrage, by contrast, had as yet very little support, even among American women. Why stand in the way of progress, simply to vindicate one’s sex?
I am not suggesting that the Clinton-Obama contest constitutes anything like an exact historical parallel. What resonates for me is the moral dilemma: Must a feminist give unwavering priority to what she regards as the rights and interests of women? If this year’s primary season has taught me anything, it’s that I really do believe race matters more than sex. Not that sexism isn’t more deeply embedded than racism in our public culture. Media windbags like Rush Limbaugh can say things about women that they simply can no longer say about racial minorities. But perhaps because I live in Washington, a city populated mainly by poor blacks and well-to-do whites, race-based inequalities are what loom large in my consciousness. I see plenty of powerful women around me. I also see a black population that’s ill-educated, troubled by high rates of crime and family instability, and increasingly detached from the labor market. Poor black women, ironically, are visibly better off than their male counterparts—more connected to family and work, less likely to be in jail or dead at an early age. And they clearly feel less anxiety for the futures of their daughters than for those of their sons.
Do I think that electing Barack Obama will somehow transform Washington’s most troubled neighborhoods? Obviously not, although Obama seems genuinely worried that many of his supporters expect precisely that. But I do hope that his election, should it come to pass, will ease fear and resentment on both sides of the racial divide and help us move beyond a polarized politics of race. To transcend our shameful history of racial oppression, to be able to speak honestly about its troubling residue in our own time—such a prospect induces in me a kind of giddiness, an exhilarating sense of new possibilities. Perhaps that’s what is moving those ecstatic crowds at Obama rallies, too. If Hillary’s election was to be of crucial importance to our daughters (as many of her supporters argued), should an Obama presidency carry any less symbolic weight? My own daughter, for the record, has hardly seemed to require Hillary’s help. She’s smart, adventurous, astonishingly successful, and far more ambitious than I was at her age. The older generation just needs to get out of her way.
Anyway, Hillary has already done a lot for our daughters. Who doubts now that a woman can be a plausible contender for the presidency? As the campaign ground on, Hillary’s gender seemed to matter less and less—even as her supporters invoked it with increasing insistency. We got used to the pantsuits and the voice. Her gestures and body language came to seem not so much sex-specific as Hillary-specific. It felt increasingly natural, in short, to have a woman campaigning for the presidency, which has to have suggested to a great many people that it would probably feel equally natural to have a woman president. And she did poll 18 million votes against one of the most gifted campaigners I’ve seen in a lifetime.
I began the primary season doubting that Hillary could transcend her sex. Victory would depend on women voting as a bloc—something they’ve never done. But she’s proved me wrong, and for that great gift I’d like to thank her. Had she won the ultimate prize, I don’t doubt for a moment that I’d be awash in proud tears come next January 20. I can remember being “surprised by joy” at Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as vice president in 1984. I hadn’t realized how much women’s exclusion from the very top jobs had bothered me. Hillary has made it possible, however, to look with confidence to the political future. It no longer seems utopian to expect a woman to be elected president in my lifetime. I just hope she won’t be a Republican. I’d hate to relive my agonies over Margaret Chase Smith.
Related: Clinton v. Obama, by Melinda Henneberger
About the Author
Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.