The other 18 million

Now that Obama has won his history-making bid, it's time for him to start winning over all of Hillary Clinton's constituencies, especially women.

Published June 5, 2008 10:25AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton's speech Tuesday night got a lot of attention for what she didn't say, and little for what she did. Most of it was standard fare, with talk about healthcare, the mortgage crisis, ending the war in Iraq. She praised Obama and his supporters more warmly than in prior speeches, but her only reference to the end of her historic race came fairly late:

“I understand that a lot of people are asking, 'What does Hillary want?'" She ticked off three or four policy priorities, but her real answer was this: "I want the nearly 18 million people who voted for me to be respected, to be heard, to be no longer invisible."

The pro-Hillary crowd at Baruch College roared, and so did the pundits on television. But it was a different kind of roar. They were outraged that she hadn't conceded. Over on MSNBC they had the vapors all evening over Clinton's refusing to die. Chris Matthews doubted she could be Obama's running mate no matter what she said Tuesday night, because for him the question is: "Can she obey? Can she accept the subservience?"

According to reports, Clinton is going to bow out of the race; she will make it official Saturday. I can understand some of the irritation about Clinton's refusal to do it Tuesday night. Barack Obama's win is a thrilling, historic achievement. The nomination of our nation's first African-American presidential candidate, a man of extraordinary political talent who beat the anointed Democratic front-runner with a tactically and strategically brilliant campaign, is such a towering event, it deserves to be savored on its own, without any split-screen coverage. But after winning almost 18 million votes and essentially tying Obama in the popular vote, I think Clinton earned at least 24 hours to think about her next move.

Obama himself was gracious to Clinton in his victory speech. He also turned his attention to the general election, giving John McCain a fantastic pounding. But Obama has one more big task left to unify his party: He needs to spread his graciousness among his supporters, in the media and the blogosphere and beyond. The self-described "hope-monger" now needs to be a grace-monger, in a word, to win back Clinton supporters proud of what she's accomplished in this race and angry over her mistreatment.

Here's why: Hillary Clinton, the Goldwater girl turned '60s liberal turned ultimate insider, the former first lady and current senator, has become the belated, almost reluctant leader of a movement, mainly of women but also of white working-class voters, Latinos, seniors and others who feel left out. They don't just feel left out by George Bush's America, but also by the Obama coalition. The women in that movement are especially volatile and angry, over the sexism Clinton has faced all along the way, right up to her final election night.

And women are the largest Democratic constituency. Winning without overwhelming support from white Democratic women wouldn't be easy for Obama. I have no doubt Obama and his supporters can reach these women, but first he has to try. I'll start with a few simple pointers for how to do it: Don't call them racist. Or old and irrelevant. And don't say Hillary Clinton has to do all the work to heal the breach; Obama has plenty he can do himself.

We saw the face of the angry white female backlash against Obama over the weekend, and it was hard not to turn away. On Friday, Geraldine Ferraro complained in a Boston Globe Op-Ed that she's been demonized for saying that Obama's presidential run benefited from his being black, and called her treatment "reverse racism." On Saturday, Harriet Christian replaced Ferraro as the overwrought voice of white female resentment. There she was at the Democratic National Committee meeting, screaming at reporters that Democrats were about to nominate "an inadequate black male who would not have been running had it not been a white woman that was running for president."

Beyond Christian's deplorable reference to Obama as an "inadequate black male" was a wail worth hearing. She also said, "I'm proud to be an older American woman!" I can feel her pain. Reading the sexist attacks on Clinton and her white female supporters, as well as on female journalists and bloggers who've occasionally tried to defend her or critique Obama, has been, well, consciousness-raising. Prejudice against older women, apparently, is one of the last non-taboo biases. I've been stunned by the extent to which trashing Clinton supporters as washed up old white women is acceptable. A writer whose work I respect submitted a piece addressed to "old white feminists," telling them to get out of Obama's way. I've found my own writing often dismissed not on its merits (or lack thereof) but because as a woman who will turn 50 in September, I'm supposed to be Clinton's demographic. Salon's letters pages, as well as the comments sections around the blogosphere, are studded with dismissive, derisive references to bitter old white women.

I do want to make clear I'm not saying sexism doomed Clinton. Her campaign made plenty of mistakes, and I even think when this is over, some number cruncher somewhere might tell us that the backlash against sexism helped Clinton more than sexism hurt her, by turning out more women voters.

In fact, tapping into that backlash, and into a feeling of female pride about her quest, saved Clinton's candidacy. Clinton herself bears a lot of blame for the fact that the historic nature of her presidential bid has been taken for granted, because it wasn't what she emphasized in the early phase of her campaign. Back then, it was about creating an aura of inevitability and invincibility, the restoration of a third Clinton term. Frankly, it wasn't until she stumbled in Iowa that claims about her run's historic nature became central to her campaign. I noticed in both Iowa and New Hampshire that in her then-lackluster stump speeches, her biggest applause lines always came when she talked about making history as the first leading female candidate for president. Not surprisingly, she began to highlight that claim to voters' allegiance, and she benefited from a surge of female pride in her candidacy (and anger at her sexist mistreatment) ever since.

That anger showed up in New Hampshire, and it saved her. Despite invidious, evidence-free claims of a racist "Bradley effect" working against Obama, polls showed Clinton benefited from a late break of white women, including college-educated white women, to her side, in the wake of her pummeling (especially by the media) after Iowa.

Still, the sexist disrespect faced by Clinton, and her female supporters, has been deplorable. But maybe worse has been the willful denial by much of the media and many Obama supporters that it even exists, or if it does, that it matters. Check out Bob Somerby's take on the recent "Meet the Press" "debate" about whether sexism hurt Clinton, if you haven't read it. It could turn any feminist into Harriet Christian.

The most destructive, divisive refrain in the attacks on Clinton has been the demand since February for her to drop out of the race. On "Hardball" last week I was flabbergasted by Chris Matthews' denial that anyone had made such demands, especially when MSNBC had been the clubhouse for people like Keith Olbermann, Jonathan Alter and Howard Fineman, who've been sounding that drumbeat since February. I can't do a better job than Digby in explaining why that's been offensive to many Clinton supporters (and should be offensive to all fair-minded people, in my opinion). And she uses Jesse Jackson to make her point:

In 84 and 88, Jackson was seen as a potential party wrecker too and in 88 he took his historic campaign, in which he won 11 contests, all the way to the convention. He made a very famous speech that he ended with the chant "Keep Hope Alive," which could have easily been construed as wishing for Dukakis to fail so he could get another bite at the apple (something that people are accusing Clinton of already.) But it wasn't.

And that's because while Jackson went to the convention trailing by 1200 delegates, he was holding a very important card, which everyone recognized and respected. You can rest assured that people were worried that his constituency, many of them first time voters who he had registered, would stay home in the fall, and so Democrats treated him and his campaign (publicly at least) with respect and deference, and rightly so. He represented the dreams and aspirations of millions of Democratic voters, after all.

To many African Americans, a constant clamor for Jackson (or Obama if it had gone that way) to drop out of the race would have been seen as a call to go to the back of the bus. Likewise, for many of Clinton's supporters, it's been seen as a call to sit down and shut up (or "stifle" as Archie Bunker used to say to Edith.)

It's worth noting that Digby is one of the rare, fair voices in the lefty blogosphere. She also happens to be one of the few women, and she's been hit by the same disgusting wave of sexist blog comments that swamps any woman who dares to defend Clinton.

Her Jackson comparison is inspired (though we should also note that Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart took their losing campaigns all the way without calls for their political execution). But it's also a reminder that one of the most troubling and unexpected results of this thrilling, historic campaign is the Racism vs. Sexism Death Match, the futile, angry attempts to decide which one is worse, more pervasive, more evil; which accounts for one candidate's success and the other's struggles. Both are terrible, both are still pervasive -- and both are far less pernicious than they were even a generation ago. I've covered this race with a surreal sense of awe and occasionally sadness over the bitterness, because I started my career covering the candidacies of Geraldine Ferraro and Jesse Jackson for In These Times in 1984, when the political battle against racism and sexism seemed entwined, when mobilizing African-Americans and women seemed the ticket to party victory.

It's clear that 24 years later, the legacy of racism and sexism is what accounts for the frayed nerves and short fuses in both campaigns. There are bruised feelings on both sides. The anger has been cresting again, unfortunately for Obama, in the last two weeks, for, among other things, Obama supporter Michael Pfleger's despicable mockery of Clinton at Obama's former church 10 days ago. Clinton backers noted that the priest was mocking Clinton's gender as well as her race.

So what can Obama do now? One of Obama's friendliest analysts on MSNBC asked me Tuesday night if I thought he should give a speech about gender. I sighed. Please God, no. I don't think Obama standing in front of flags in, say, Seneca Falls and talking about the history of sexism is going to soothe angry Clinton supporters. It bothered many women that he never spoke out about the sexism Clinton faced during the campaign. Certainly when she was accused of "pimping out" her daughter Chelsea on MSNBC he had a great opportunity to come to her side, and he missed it. Personally, I don't think it's too late for him to find a way to apologize for Pfleger. Obama's statement denouncing him came quickly last week, but it focused on the political damage the priest was doing to his candidacy, not what he'd said personally about Clinton.

Mainly I think he has to reach out to women the old-fashioned way: individually, warmly and respectfully. He needs to schedule meetings with Clinton's top female supporters. (It's probably too much to ask, but I'd love to see a lunch with Geraldine Ferraro. Ask for her thoughts on winning women and Reagan Democrats. Explain that being the first serious black presidential candidate is a little harder than maybe it looked.) It's still too early for me to be certain what Obama should do with his vice-presidential pick, except I know he needs to quite publicly take a Clinton candidacy seriously. I'm not sure picking another woman would cut it. It would look like a form of tokenism, and it wouldn't necessarily do the trick: It's one particular woman, not just any woman, who earned 18 million votes that he will need in November.

Clearly Obama needs to devote time to winning over all of Clinton's constituencies, with a special emphasis on women. I know he can do it -- as long as he doesn't listen to supporters who insist he doesn't have to. And unbelievably, they're out there. In a mind-blowing piece by Roger Simon, some Obama supporters suggest he should turn the page, focus on McCain, ignore Clinton, and assume her supporters will flock to his tent -- in part because they have to, because of Supreme Court appointments and Roe v. Wade.

A GOP focus group looking for a way to get Clinton supporters to back McCain couldn't have done a better job. Tell people whose support you need that they don't have any choice but to give it to you? Good luck with that. I don't believe there's a vast army of Democratic women waiting to vote for John McCain in November, but there are some. "I cannot say that I would do that. I won't say that now," hardcore Clinton supporter Susie Tompkins Buell said Tuesday night. "I do know a lot of other women will. There's a movement out there."

If, as he shifts his attention to the general election, Obama reaches out with magnanimity and awareness, threats of bolting the party will become a bad memory. I'm sure a lot of Clinton supporters are deep down, just like me: I can't vote for John McCain because I'm a feminist, and I have a daughter. I couldn't ignore the mistreatment of Hillary Clinton for the same reasons.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama Democratic Party Geraldine Ferraro Hillary Rodham Clinton