Saturday, November 24, 2007

Voters Consider Intangibles and Identity Politics

Voters Consider Intangibles and Identity Politics

There are two kinds of issues at play in a nomination contest: policy issues and intangibles. Frankly, the policy differences between the six leading Democrats are relatively nuanced. They all want to end the war as soon as possible, with some disagreement on how soon that can be done. They all have some sort of health care plan that retains the private health insurance sector.

So the race is coming down to the intangibles: electability, likability, competitiveness with the Republicans, and the identity politics of Voting For Someone Who Looks Like Me. The most important issue for many voters may not be Iraq War or Health Care or Economy. It may be Woman President.

After the Las Vegas debate, in an article titled "Hillary and the Winning XX Factor," Celeste Fremon at Witness LA wrote:
Hillary plays the girl card because, every time she does, it has a very good chance of resonating with half the American population.

She spoke about mothers driving their daughters hundreds of miles to meet the person who might be the first woman president, followed by a heart-tugging story of a grandmother, born back when only men had the right to vote, who told Hil, “I want to live long enough to see a woman in the White House.” Yeah, it was cheesy, but it worked. I even got kind of teary, and I don’t much like the broad.

So, let’s not kid ourselves, if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination it will not be in spite of the fact that she’s a woman, it will be, in a weird way, because of it.

Last week, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times earned herself a permanent place in the Clinton enemy list:
Obama offered a zinger feathered with amused disdain: “My understanding was that she wasn’t Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, so I don’t know exactly what experiences she’s claiming.”

Everybody laughed, including Obama.

It took him nine months, but he finally found the perfect pitch to make a trenchant point.

Obama’s one-liner evoked something that rubs some people the wrong way about Hillary. Getting ahead through connections is common in life. But Hillary cloaks her nepotism in feminism.

What if a male writer said "Hillary cloaks her nepotism in feminism" -- or a male candidate? Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light. Total protonic reversal. That's an important safety tip for Clinton's male rivals.

Dowd cites Joan Di Cola, a Boston lawyer, in a letter to The Wall Street Journal this week:
“She hasn’t accomplished anything on her own since getting admitted to Yale Law. She isn’t Dianne Feinstein, who spent years as mayor of San Francisco before becoming a senator, or Nancy Pelosi, who became Madam Speaker on the strength of her political abilities. All Hillary is, is Mrs. Clinton. She became a partner at the Rose Law Firm because of that, senator of New York because of that, and (heaven help us) she could become president because of that.”

In fairness, Clinton wouldn't be the first candidate to benefit from a family tie, as the current president and his father could attest. And Speaker Pelosi's father served in Congress as well. But if the "experience" so often cited by Clinton supporters as the reason for their support were really such a decisive factor, then why isn't there a neck and neck race between Joe Biden and Chris Dodd for first place? If "qualifications" matter, then Bill Richardson and his long resume would be close behind.

Clinton's standard stump speech riff on the gender subject runs something like: "I'm not running to be the first woman, I'm running because I feel I'm the most qualified, but it would be nice." But whenever the gender references happen, the cheers get just a little louder and just a little higher in pitch, and the same thing happened at the Nov. 10 Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Des Moines when Pelosi made reference to being the first woman Speaker of the House.

Clinton may be the first female front runner, but she's hardly the first credible woman to run -- Republicans Margaret Chase Smith and Elizabeth Dole come to mind, as does Democrat Shirley Chisholm. And Barack Obama isn't the first black candidate, either. Has everyone forgotten Al Sharpton in the debates just four years ago, or all the primaries Jesse Jackson won in 1988?

Yet the buzz around Barack Obama seems to be less about Black President than about Generation X President. At 46, Obama's technically a Baby Boomer, under the traditional 1946-1964 definition. But he's part of what's sometimes called the "Shadow Boomer" generation, born between 1958 and 1964. (To me, born in December `63, you're not a Boomer if you can't remember the Kennedy assassination or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.) Obama often speaks of being too young to have participated in the civil rights battles of the 1960s, and his rhetoric has a certain 80's generation style and humor.

In The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan makes both the generational and racial case for Obama, arguing that only a post-Boomer can heal the bitter tone of post-1968 politics:
The divide is still -— amazingly —- between those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn’t, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but never dissented at all. By defining the contours of the Boomer generation, it lasted decades. And with time came a strange intensity.

The war today matters enormously. The war of the last generation? Not so much. If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man.

Sullivan then explicitly makes the racial argument:
Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man —- Barack Hussein Obama —- is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

Ironically, the leading candidate making the most explicit, leftist-populist case falls into a demographic that's been largely lost to the Republican party: middle-aged white Southern male John Edwards. But the identity politics are still in play here. Implicit in the Edwards electability argument is the unspoken notion that a white Southern man will attract voters that a woman or a black man can't.

Are these considerations fair? Doesn't matter; they're real. Celeste Fremon concludes without concluding, weighing the policy issues against the intangibles.
All things being equal, that isn’t such a bad thing. As a country, we are more than ready for such a gender breakthrough. I just wish the person with the best shot at smashing that “highest, hardest glass ceiling” she mentioned in Las Vegas, was someone other than poll-driven, hawkish Hillary Clinton.

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