Hillary's Pivotal Role: Help Obama or Let Him Twist in the Wind?

Well, Hillary Clinton is finally out of the race. Sort of. Her campaign is suspended, and her hopes for 2008 are officially over, sort of, meaning it's now appropriate, sort of, to reflect upon the meaning of her run for office this year.

And that, folks, is already saying something -- the fact that it's not time to write a political obituary for Clinton. Had she lost in New Hampshire this year and then bowed out of the race -- and she came within a few percentage points of having that scenario unfold -- she most likely would have been finished as a presidential hopeful for good.

But she stayed in it, amazingly, fighting off four or five near-death experiences to remain a viable candidate. The mere fact that she survived New Hampshire, and Nevada, and Super Tuesday, and Texas, and all of those other fail-safe points earlier on in the race is incredible enough; she could have bowed out at any time after those primaries and it would still have been an amazing run.

But in one of the weirder episodes in the history of American presidential politics, she stayed in it long after the math had already been decided (which was basically after the Potomac primaries) in Barack Obama's favor, with the result that we now enter the general election season looking at an almost unheard-of triangular scenario: The American electorate is now basically split into thirds, and how Clinton proceeds from here will shape the future of all three groups.

If Clinton sits out the general election season, or campaigns halfheartedly for Obama, and John McCain wins, she becomes the automatic front-runner for the Democratic ticket in 2012.

Clinton, of course, must be aware of this calculus and as such is faced with an unprecedented moral/ethical choice heading into the fall. If she campaigns hard for Obama and helps pull all of her disaffected voters back onto the Democratic ticket, Obama will probably win this thing in a landslide. If she pulls a slowdown, however, and a big chunk of her voters sit this one out or vote for McCain, it will greatly enhance her own prospects for the presidency four years later.

Clinton, therefore, must choose between two loyalties: party and self. Depending on how one looks at things, one might even say the choice is between country and self. Assuming that one believes the differences between a Republican presidency and a Democratic presidency would be profound, Clinton now must decide if she thinks that the country would be better off suffering through four years of McCain before getting a shot at putting her own excellent, experienced self in the Oval Office, or whether it would be better off putting a man whose platform is almost identical to her own in there right away.

Anyone who thinks that should be an easy choice -- that the "right" thing to do is obviously to put party over self, and not only help Obama get elected but help strip the Republicans of power -- is kidding himself or herself. The American presidency is the biggest prize on the planet Earth. Should a beaten and fatigued Obama fall even one vote short in a race against a very old and very flawed Republican candidate, Clinton suddenly becomes about a 1-3 Vegas favorite for the Big Seat four years from now.

Ask yourself how hard you'd stump for a once-loathed rival in that scenario. Better yet, ask your friendly neighborhood psychiatrist how easy it would be for a woman who has suffered as much public abuse and humiliation as Clinton has over the last few decades to rationalize the many subtle forms of sabotage that are now open to her with regard to Obama's campaign, should she choose to go that route.

As this increasingly strange campaign season unfolded, I often had people ask me what the hell Clinton was doing. Particularly after the Potomac primaries, the actual motives of Clinton for continuing on and punching holes in the presumptive Democratic nominee as she did seemed to many of us campaign reporters to be a genuine, Agatha Christie-worthy mystery.

At first, I didn't have an answer for anyone who asked that question. But as time wore on, and I started to get more letters and read more internet postings, I thought I was starting to grasp the bigger picture. The only way that Clinton's behavior back then makes any sense at all, ethical or otherwise, is if she viewed her political career purely through the prism of feminist achievement, i.e., as a way to provide inspiration to every qualified woman who was ever asked or expected to step aside in life for the sake of a man.

Where other women in that situation might have been forced to concede -- women in professional environments who couldn't take a stand against their bosses and risk losing their jobs, women in abusive relationships forced to coddle the egos of inferior men in order to protect their own or their children's physical well-being -- Clinton was able to fight on. The fact that she was able not only to fight on but to inflict real damage against her smug, seductive, would-be male conqueror was an added bonus.

As a symbol of feminist resolve, Clinton was a smashing success and an inspiration of historical proportions. Generations of young women will grow up remembering this race as a great national lesson in which the country was taught that a woman can succeed in head-to-head combat with men through sheer blood-and-guts aggressiveness and pugilistic resolve, while it is men who sometimes have to resort to good looks and charm to get over in life. As a smasher of stereotypes (not only female stereotypes but male ones as well), Clinton has no equal in modern history. And if that was her thinking in staying in the race, I'd have a hard time arguing with her logic.

But there are two problems with this somewhat heroic interpretation of Clinton's campaign.

The first is that in order for Clinton to continue a campaign whose only logical pretext was as a symbolic campaign against sexism and sexist stereotypes, it appears that she and her supporters felt it necessary to turn Obama into a villain, a symbol both of male iniquity and of the sins of a male-dominated society.

At first, the implication that Obama's campaign was somehow wind-aided by sexism or in fact sexist itself was merely implied in the rhetoric of Clinton supporters, or in Clinton's own speeches. But later it became overt. Former vice presidential hopeful Geraldine Ferraro spelled it out openly after her celebrated interview with the New York Times in which she called Obama "terribly sexist." Here is how one newspaper summed up Ferraro's evidence of Obama sexism:

His response to Mrs. Clinton's reminiscences about learning to shoot as a girl at her grandfather's summer cabin in Pennsylvania. Miss Ferraro said: "He walked up and down the stage with his microphone like a stand-up comic and ridiculed her as an Annie Oakley," she said, quoting his reference to the legendary female sharpshooter. "Would he have ridiculed a man by comparing him to John Wayne? Of course not."

His apparently dismissive description of Mrs. Clinton as "likeable enough" during a televised debate before the New Hampshire primaries.

His role in an earlier debate in Philadelphia when several of the male candidates running at the time were said to have ganged up on her, prompting Mrs. Clinton to complain about the "boy's club" of U.S. politics.

His "failure," Miss Ferraro claims, to speak out against other sexist acts such as lewd T-shirts, the men who shouted "Iron my shirt!" at Mrs. Clinton and jibes about her "cackle." Mr. Obama also apologized to a female reporter he called "sweetie" in an aside that received widespread coverage.
To sum up, this famous and influential female politician classified as "terrible sexism" a mocking comparison of Clinton, who was somewhat absurdly describing herself as a cabin-raised child of the frontier, to a famous frontier woman (was he supposed to pick Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett?); a comment that Clinton was likeable; Obama's participation in a debate in which trailing candidates "ganged up" on the front-runner (as if that had never happened before!); and his failure to speak out against a) an obscure T-shirt and b) a description of Clinton's off-putting laugh that, excuse me, is totally accurate.

For these crimes, Ferraro is now considering throwing her support to a Republican politician who:

a) Once sat out a vote on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, claiming that he would have opposed legislating equal pay for women had he voted. Instead of equal pay, McCain said, women need "education and training"

b) Has pledged to overturn Roe v. Wade

c) Opposed the Title X family planning program, which among other things would have provided low-income women with birth control and breast and cervical cancer screening

d) Opposed efforts to permit women to fly combat missions in the military. His reasoning: "The purpose of the military is first to defend the nation's vital security interests throughout the globe, and only second to ensure equality"

In other words, asked to pick the real sexist between a man who called Clinton "likeable" and a man who has openly said that letting women fly fighter planes would weaken the country, Ferraro picked the former.

And she wasn't alone. Because turning Obama into a sexist was rhetorically necessary to justify Clinton's scorched-earth campaign, the last few months of the Democratic nominating process became a strange exercise in overinterpretative internet sleuthing and conspiratorial thinking, with the result being that by the end of the process, the use of seemingly suggestive words and gestures began to overtake genuinely regressive policies and the imposition of real barriers as the national definition of what "sexism" is.

Women were united behind Clinton as never before, and they were furiously fighting every perceived sexist slight of her or her campaign -- but these slights were quite often of the offhand and/or patently absurd variety, like Obama's notorious use of the word "periodically" to describe Clinton's moods, or his contention that "the claws come out" when one challenges the status quo, her criticism being the claws. There was an enormous backlash against the word "claws," as if this were somehow a kind of code men use to describe aggressive women -- in the same way "cackle" was supposedly a widely accepted and instantly identifiable means of comparing strong women to witches.

The lowlight for me of this entire campaign to describe Obama as a sexist was the "Obama gives Hillary the finger" YouTube phenomenon, a short video clip that made the rounds of all of the anti-Obama sites that purported to show Obama slyly using the pretext of an itch on his face to give Clinton the finger with his scratching hand. Now, in fact, if you look at the video, he's scratching his face with two fingers -- but even if he weren't, so what? Is it really believable that the Harvard-educated Barack Obama would intentionally give his opponent the finger, flashing it surreptitiously like O.J. holding up a gang sign on TV? Of course not.

It was the kind of thing that you only saw if you were looking for it, and looking for it not occasionally but constantly. How many times did Obama scratch his face this year while talking about Clinton? Fifty? A hundred? Five hundred? The people who were even looking for that one time that he used his middle finger were not unlike those loonies who found the face of Jesus in the ultrasound image of some British woman's baby. You're only seeing that shit if you're inclined to see the face of Jesus in everything -- the patterns in a plate of corned beef hash, the cracks in a piece of water-damaged drywall, etc.

My point in all of this is that Clinton's decision to fight on after the math had already eliminated her only made sense if she was fighting for the cause of feminism, in order to serve as an inspirational symbol for abused and belittled women everywhere. But this clarion-call campaign made false villains out of Obama and his supporters, in the process rendering the term sexism at least somewhat meaningless by virtue of its extreme overuse.

Clinton rallied millions of women who were the victims of real sexism behind the cause of her campaign -- and then focused all of their real and really justified anger and frustration at an otherwise progressive candidate, whose biggest crime against women was that he had honestly and fairly defeated a female opponent on the way to the nomination. The beating Obama took for this supposed offense left deep scars not only on him personally, but perhaps on the Democratic Party heading into the fall -- and this was a punishment that, in my mind at least, did not really fit the crime, unless you were willing to argue that the anti-choice, anti-equal pay Republican Party was somehow no more regressive in its attitudes toward women than would be the Democratic Party under Obama.

So that was one problem with viewing Clinton's campaign through that heroic prism, i.e., that of an inspirational female leader refusing to step aside when told by a male-dominated political hierarchy. The other was that I just don't believe it.

I personally believe that had it been Bill Clinton running and not Hillary, he would have behaved exactly the same way. This was probably a story of an extremely ambitious politician refusing to give up the dream of earthly power, nothing more, nothing less. Hillary stayed in the race because she thought that, by hook or by crook, she could keep it close enough, and bloody Obama's nose enough, to convince the party elders to hand her the nomination. It was the behavior of someone who voted for the Iraq War when she thought the war was a political winner, and criticized it when she thought it was a loser; who voted for free-trade agreements when that was good campaign-contribution-earning politics, and railed against them when she had to campaign in union states.

This is a politician who used every weapon in her arsenal to knock Obama off, smearing his friends and associations, impugning his patriotism, implying that his presidency would invite terrorist attacks, belittling his candidacy for being based on large numbers of minority voters, and so on. It requires a serious leap of the imagination to believe that she did all of this, and in doing so threw her party's November chances on the proverbial iceberg, to advance the cause of women. It seems to me more likely that she larded her campaign with feminist symbolism for the same reason that, needing working-class support against an opponent who polled badly with that demographic, she talked up her Pennsylvania-cabin roots and her grandfather's past working in a lace mill: because she's a politician, and that's where the votes were.

Or maybe not. Maybe I have this all wrong. The beauty of this kind of analysis is that now all we have to do to finally understand what we saw this spring is wait, watch and see what Clinton does from now on. Her struggle fell a hair short, but now she finds herself in a kind of political purgatory, the leader of a massive, angry voter demographic that will likely follow along to wherever she chooses to take this country.

And it really is up to her. If she lets Obama twist in the wind and sits out the fall, she elects McCain -- and we'll know that she doesn't really give a shit about ending the war, or staving off a financial crisis, or keeping the Supreme Court safe for reproductive rights, or anything else beyond getting her and her husband's furniture back into the White House sometime in the next eight years.

But if she turns this thing around and plays loyal soldier for the party, and helps reassure her voters that it's OK to vote for her erstwhile, un-American, inexperienced villain of a young black opponent, we'll know that Clinton's amazingly tenacious campaign wasn't the selfish, indulgent, pointlessly divisive and destructive exercise it seems like right now to skeptics like me, but rather a powerful, inspirational and historically meaningful message sent to the world about the ability of women to compete and succeed in what used to be a man's game. That it can only have been one or the other is without a doubt, at this point. It's up to her now to tell us what the hell it is we just watched over the last five months.

AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by writers and video makers are their own.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.