Sunday, August 29, 2010


Anna Holmes and Rebecca Traister have an op-ed in today's New York Times arguing that Democrats have failed to champion a feminism-invoking woman as wholeheartedly as right-wingers have lately -- their new heroine being, of course, Sarah Palin. I take Holmes and Traister's point -- but it reminds me of so much that was written around the time of the 2008 primaries, when many observers declared that all opposition to Hillary Clinton derived from sexism, and when we were told that Clinton's near-victory in the primaries, as the first woman ever with a serious chance at a major party's presidential nomination, was in fact a defeat for women. I still say it's more complicated than that:

Holmes and Traister write:

... Since the 2008 election, progressive leaders have done little to address the obvious national appetite for female leadership.

I'd say that's in large part because no one has been advanced as a Democratic leader for the future, male or female.

There are several reasons for this. The obvious one is that Democrats, unlike Republicans, presumably don't feel they're in "rebuilding years" -- they have leaders who've recently taken charge of Congress (2007) and the White House (2009).

Another reason is that Democrats are generally lousy at grooming and putting forth future stars, of either gender. They rarely recognize their need to have a stable of surrogates who go on cable news programs and Sunday talk shows defending party policy, becoming familiar faces in the process.

More from Holmes and Traister:

... the sad truth is that Democrats often prefer their women fulfilling similarly diminutive models for behavior. Consider how Hillary Clinton has been treated, at times, by those in her own party: Democratic leaders never really celebrated Mrs. Clinton’s nation-altering place in history as the first female candidate to get so close to a major party's presidential nomination. Indeed, she is most appreciated when she plays well with others in the Senate or the State Department; when she behaves like a fierce competitor, she is compared to Glenn Close’s bunny-boiling virago from "Fatal Attraction."

It's hard to go over this ground, but please remember that Clinton nearly won the nomination, and would have been celebrated if she had won it. She lost for a lot of reasons -- yes, sexism, but also a sense that her opposition to the Iraq War was less pure than Obama's, as well as a sense (and we can argue about this all day) that her campaign against Obama more frequently took the low road than Obama's did. her campaign also just didn't master the minutiae of the primary process as well as Obama's did.

And I'll throw in another one here: I think a lot of us feared that she'd struggle in a general election because of Republican attacks that embraced sexism. Some Democrats did pile on, but the sexist attacks were Republican memes (and Beltway-insider memes). Who compared Clinton to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? I find one Democratic elected official -- Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee. I find a D.C. lifer with Democratic ties -- Brent Budowsky, blogging at the Huffington Post. I find Ken Rudin of NPR. But beyond that, I find right-wingers -- Alex Castellanos and Peggy Noonan and Monica Crowley and Lars Larson. It's not our line.

... Imagine a Democrat willing to brag about breaking the glass ceiling at the explosive beginning, not the safe end, of her campaign. A liberal politician taking to Twitter to argue that big broods and a "culture of life" are completely compatible with reproductive freedom. A female candidate on the left who speaks as angrily and forcefully about her rivals' shortcomings as Sarah Barracuda does about the Pelosis and Obamas of the world. A smart, unrelenting female, who, unlike Ms. Palin, wants to tear down, not reinforce, traditional ways of looking at women. But that will require a party that is eager to discover, groom, promote and then cheer on such a progressive Palin.

It would also probably require a plane crash that kills Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Grover Norquist, and the Koch brothers. Can you imagine what would happen to a Democratic woman who put herself out there like that? There wouldn't be one Andrew Sullivan trying to turn a conspiracy theory into a major story, as the people he'd like to persuade rolled their eyes. There'd be a zone-flooding tsunami of grotesque half-truths and sleazy scuttlebutt, all eagerly advanced by virtually every GOP operative. Such a woman would become a living, breathing Park51 project. It's conceivable that a female Democrat could be tough enough to take this and appealing enough to keep fighting, but it sure as hell wouldn't be easy.

Yeah, I'd like to see it too. Alternately, since we're talking about progressive women, I'd like Elizabeth Warren become president of the United States, or at least treasury secretary or chair of the Federal Reserve. But I'm not holding my breath. And I think the reasons go well beyond sexism.

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