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Democrats go from lovefest to food fight

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Ellen Goodman
May 22, 2008
— Is there anyone who still remembers the folksy winter tableau? Eight Democratic candidates against the picturesque backdrop of Iowa and New Hampshire. It was a feel-good photo-op of diversity. The Democratic Party was black and white and Hispanic, male and female and proud. Our party, its leaders said, looks like America.

As for Barack and Hillary? Yes, there were the predictable magazine cover stories asking whether America was “ready” for an African-American or a woman. But these were not long-shot candidates, a favorite son or daughter running to prove a point.


Obama presented himself as the American sum of his roots. He wasn’t “the African-American candidate” but the post-racial, post-divisive orator whose presence and eloquence promised to turn that page.


For her part, Clinton seemed to leap over the old gender barriers simply by being the front-runner. For once, a woman was the experienced candidate, the tough guy in the race.


Now what? The sense of freshness, the pleasure of breaking barriers, has been nearly exhausted. We’ve gone from party lovefest to food fight, from having our eyes on the prize to feeling like partisans at a prizefight.


Look at any blog where opinion-hurling—Racist! Sexist!—has become a bitter sport. Pollsters have sliced and diced us into demographic tidbits of race, gender, class and age, producing self-fulfilling prophecies of splinter. Now national polls say a quarter of all Hillary supporters won’t vote for Barack. And the feeling is mutual.


This is what America looks like?


As one supporter told Hillary in an e-mail, “It’s not over until the lady in the pantsuit says it is.” But the campaign obits are written and waiting for release. So, for many women, the feel-good tableau is tainted by a 5 o’clock shadow of bad feelings. A historic campaign has opened fissures along historic fault lines.


The deepest is between women and our culture. The campaign was rife with reminders of how women charging forward are pushed backward. Hillary supporters aren’t the only women who have rediscovered a word rarely spoken outside of women’s studies class: misogyny.


How else to explain the focus on Hillary’s cackle and cleavage, the T-shirt that read “If Only Hillary Had Married OJ Instead”? Or the casual use of the b-word? Or the “hilarious collectible” given to the husband of a prominent politician on his birthday: a Hillary nutcracker?


All season, cable news anchors displayed boorish contempt for a woman Chris Matthews called “Nurse Ratched.” A radio host, Randi Rhodes, called the senator a “f---ing whore” while calling herself a progressive. In offices, sly jokes are forwarded by e-mail and women who do not laugh are accused of being “too sensitive.” Women who protest are accused of playing the gender card.


There are fractures as well, long dormant, between African-American and white women. Sisters and sisterhood. Who defines a double bind? Who limits that identity?


And the generation gap? Has it become an unbridgeable chasm? Many feminist elders see Obama as just another man leapfrogging over a qualified woman to the corner office. Many post-feminist daughters describe the former first lady as “old politics” and define progress as voting for the person, not the gender.


As for class divisions? Many urban professional women whose lives followed the same arc judge Hillary as if she were running for Perfect Woman while down-the-economic-ladder women identified more with this Wellesley graduate for president.


And as if that weren’t enough, at the last minute there was a wedge driven into the reliably Democratic pro-choice community. In a gratuitous slap, NARAL Pro-Choice America pre-emptively endorsed Obama, prompting one among thousands of angry pro-choice women to write: “Et tu, Brute?”


I am sure there will be endless postmortems and Ph.D. theses written on this primary. How did race and gender tip the balance? Was this a loss for women or one woman? Did Hillary blaze the path or leave an ugly footprint for the next woman?


Time and the specter of John McCain might patch these crevices. But we have watched the political become (too) personal. We have watched the first optimistic blush of diversity get bloodied with tribalism.


Both Clinton and Obama brought new voters and energy into the compelling narrative of this campaign. But how hard will it be to rebuild the Humpty Dumpty of diversity into the portrait of what America looks like … at its best?


Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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