June 01, 2008

Hillary's Hubris

After the American Century

One of the ancient Greek playrights might have worked up the events of the Democratic Party primaries into a dramatic production: "Hillary's Hubris" - a brilliant politician's unsuccessful drive for power threatens to tear her world apart . . . . a new work by the author of Oedipus Rex.

Shakespere might have rolled out "Hillary Hamlet," - being the tale of a princess who expected to inherit the throne and became convinced that only a foul conspiracy against her person could explain the sudden rise of a handsome young prince.

But seriously, there is a curious idea, or proto-narrative, floating around that goes something like this: Hillary Clinton is losing to Barack Obama because discrimination against women is stronger and more pernicious than discrimination against African-Americans. Such talk is deeply unfair to both candidates. It assumes that race and gender are more important than anything else. It overlooks the rather obvious fact that an attractive, experienced, and well-spoken white man, John Edwards, lost to both Clinton and Obama. In fact, so did every other white man in the race. So, the idea that voters are deeply preoccupied with gender and race, and that they are particularly prejudiced against women, is not a convincing position to begin with. But when the argument is raised by the Clinton camp, it is self-serving nonsense. Trying to make Hillary look like a victim just doesn't fly. She was the front-runner until early February, and when you are in front, the journalists go after you. The same thing happened to Obama when he took the lead.

For Hillary's supportrs to claim she is a victim of sexism does not fly for other reasons that are also obvious. Recall that she was leading in the polls for months during 2007. Recall that the press annointed her as the virtual candidate. Recall that she had the enormous advantage of drawing on Bill Clinton's political network. During all this time one did not hear many complaints from her camp about her treatment in the press, because she was getting good press.

Why did she fall behind Obama? Because she ran a lousy campaign in January and especially in February, when she had prepared almost nothing for the primaries after "Super Tuesday." Instead, she had to fire her campaign manager and reorganize. Despite her huge early advantage, Hillary lost in the trenches. She did it too herself. Obama won because he managed his campaign more effectively in those crucial first two months. She has been trying, and failing, to catch up ever since.

When a politician falls behind, or an athelete or anyone else for that matter, one possibility is to gain some respect for the opponent, admit mistakes, exhibit some grace under pressure, and try to win back the lost ground. To some extent, Clinton has done that. But she has also whined, complained of discrimination, played the race card and most unpleasantly of all, hinted that she remains available just in case her opponent gets shot. It was a disgrace when she said that she was the candidate of white people, of "hard-working white people." As a white person, I am angry that she spoke that way. It is especially offensive if you happen not to be white.

Is she a victim, as some of her supporters claim? She beat every white male opponent, and every male opponent but one. She is a powerful US Senator. She has accumulated a large personal fortune. For such a person to complain about gender discrimination is deeply dishonest. The Clinton camp should have learned from Obama that most voters are not looking to elect a victim as president. They do not want that sort of self-dramatization combined with a sense of entitlement. What voters want is a positive message. Bill Clinton knew that in 1992, but she seems to have forgotten.

Worst of all, she and Bill Clinton have to some extent succeeded in making the primary race into a contest where race and gender are central, rather than the very serious issues. The African-American voters in New York are angry at her pattern of behavior. History may not forgive the Clintons, but in the meantime get ready for an exciting fall production, "Who's Afraid of Hillary's Hubris?"