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The Case for (and against) Hillary Clinton

The Case For (and Against) Hillary Clinton

I have been thus far unable to find someone who is willing to go on the record with me about Hillary Clinton. If you’re a supporter and want to talk to Kaffeine Buzz about her, please email me at the address below and I’ll get right back to you.

Until then, I can’t go any further with this project until I talk about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.

Senator Clinton is not the first woman to run for President. That was Victoria Woodhull, back in 1872. Which was, need I remind you, before women were given the vote. Belva Ann Lockwood also ran for president before women voted, and actually won over four thousand all-male votes.

In 1964, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Republican, was the first woman candidate in a major party. She won 3.8 percent of the vote. In 1972, Shirley Chisholm, also the first black candidate of a major party, won 152 delegates to the Democratic convention. She was the subject of a documentary in 2004, with the sassy title Shirley Chisholm: Unbought & Unbossed. Plus, she had fabulous glasses.

Geraldine Ferraro was Democratic challenger Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, and debated Vice President George H.W. Bush on national TV. Elizabeth Dole, who might’ve had some of the same problems as Senator Clinton, ran as a Republican in 2000 but dropped out before the primaries. She is currently in the Senate and up for re-election in 2008.

And Carol Moseley Braun, who declined to be interviewed for this column, ran in 2004. Moseley Braun, a former ambassador to New Zealand and the first black female U.S. Senator, did not receive the support of many large women’s organizations and has since left politics behind her. One of her platforms was a single-payer health care system.

All these women broke ground that allowed Senator Clinton to be where she is, and they should be celebrated for doing what they did without the mainstream support that Clinton has had. Even Elizabeth Dole, who did rise to prominence through her own husband’s campaign, should be given credit. To imply that Hillary Clinton was the first “serious” woman candidate is to insult the hard work of all of these women.

Hillary Clinton is, however, the first woman to be considered the front-runner by her party and the national media. She’s the first one to win multiple primaries and to hold a lead in the national polls. And for that she does deserve our credit and respect.

Prominent feminists have written op-eds touting Clinton and gently scolding women who do not support her (though where were they when Carol Moseley Braun was running?), and NOW New York called Senator Ted Kennedy’s support of Obama a “betrayal,” though no such comments were leveled at Governors Janet Napolitano and Kathleen Sebelius, or Senator Claire McCaskill, who might be expected to support a woman candidate.

Her support base has been pigeonholed over and over again, but the fact is that Senator Clinton has gotten votes from every demographic in the Democratic primaries. Her “base” may be older white women the same way George W. Bush’s “base” is rich oil tycoons, but she has been able to get votes across race and gender barriers. And at the beginning of the primary season, she looked unbeatable.

I’m not going to devote time and space here to Barack Obama’s rise. That’s been chronicled elsewhere. I’m also not going to analyze demographics, because that’s just divisive and far too easy.

Clinton lost in Iowa and then won in New Hampshire, and the credit was given to the “tears.” Pundits opined that in that moment, she showed a genuine side and it got voters out to support her. For “genuine,” read “feminine.”

In 1992, Hillary Clinton was threatening as a first lady possibility. She tried in vain to make herself less so, even publishing her recipe for chocolate chip cookies. She very visibly worked on health care–and very visibly failed at it. From then on, she was less in the spotlight.

Her work on health care has now become a cornerstone of her campaign, and her policy gets rave reviews from many analysts, who say that mandates are the only way to get everyone covered. But it’s not her policy that got credit for her win in New Hampshire. It was her sudden fitting into a female stereotype–she cried. (Which she didn’t really do. Her eyes welled up for a second.)

The media coverage of Senator Clinton has almost certainly been negative. Whether the Saturday Night Live crew was on the money with its jokes about the fawning treatment of Senator Obama, they certainly had a point that Senator Clinton has gotten more than her share of unfair press. The latest spate of comments include hosts saying that she is “depressed” and “like someone with multiple-personality disorder.” (Media Matters has more.) Of course, the positive Obama coverage is starting to change as well, but that’s a subject for another article.

Earlier, Chris Matthews had to publicly apologize for his comments, including one that said that Senator Clinton got to where she is because her husband messed around. She’s been compared to a wicked witch, and to “everybody’s first wife.” And there’s a lovely anti-Clinton group cleverly titled Citizens United Not Timid. (This is a family-friendly site, so I’m not going to point out what those initials spell…)

The question has been raised whether these comments would be leveled at any woman in her position–whether they constitute backlash against women, or just the media’s distaste for this particular one. Whatever the reasoning, though, it is sexist rhetoric and should be condemned no matter what opinion you hold of Senator Clinton.

Her own rhetoric has been interesting to watch. After the first Democratic debate, way back last summer, I remember turning to my friend and saying, “Wow. Clinton’s really good.” And she was. She was smart, smiley, charismatic, and most of all, confident. I also took note of her metaphors, and her use of words like “retaliate” and “destroy” when asked questions about national security.

National security, of course, is her other big selling point. She says she’s ready to be Commander in Chief on day one. The recent commercial shows a “red phone moment” and asks voters who they’d like to have answering that phone in a time of crisis.

It is interesting to note that it is the female candidate who has positioned herself as the strongest against terrorism, the one most prepared to lead the military. She also, of course, was an early supporter of the war in Iraq, a vote she has not apologized for or said she would take back.

Some think her vote back then to authorize the use of force was a cynical political move, done so that she could later use just this kind of rhetoric on the campaign trail against possibly more dovish opponents on the left and compete strongly in a general election against a pro-war Republican. Others say that she probably did support the war on the arguments presented at the time, many of which were later found to be false. In either case, there is no reason to think that she is insincere about her current promises to end the war, but the pro-war vote can be seen as a question of judgment.

Clinton herself has said that we can’t tell what Obama would have done in her place. And, of course, she’s right. But in the Democratic primary, at least, it is also impossible to tell to what degree her Iraq war vote has hurt her. Perhaps her detractors are not merely threatened by a woman, or voting their gender or racial identity, but actually dislike the idea of having another anti-war candidate whose criticisms are undercut by her original vote in favor.

Clinton’s argument that she is more experienced belies the fact that she has only one and a half Senate terms of actual elected experience. Of course, this does not make her unqualified–Obama and Edwards had equivalent or less elected experience, depending on whether we count Obama’s time in the Illinois state legislature. However, the argument is not nearly as strong when considering the other, quickly-eliminated candidacies of Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd, or even Dennis Kucinich. It’s not experience she’s campaigning on, but rather name recognition.

America knows the name Clinton. It did fairly well under the first President Clinton, and he left office with the highest approval ratings of any president after World War II. It’s that positive opinion that she’s looking to gain with her evocation of experience, not her actual experience. She has associated herself in the public’s mind with her husband’s presidency, but occasionally appears to want credit for the good things while claiming that it’s not fair to blame her for the bad, including the recent flap over NAFTA.

Comparison of her Senate voting record with Obama’s shows very few differences, but one can analyze the bills that they sponsored and actively worked for. I’m not going to bore you to tears with this here, but one blogger did the work for you, so I refer you to Obsidian Wings for bills sponsored and passed, bills co-sponsored, and, if your brain hasn’t exploded yet, amendments co-sponsored.

It is commonly recognized that Clinton needs large victories in Ohio and Texas in order to remain competitive. However, her campaign has seemed increasingly desperate–as a blogger at Lawyers, Guns and Money noted, Clinton deserves a better campaign than the one she’s getting. Her strategists seem to be unable to deal with the idea that the nomination will not be handed to them, and Obama’s rising poll numbers seem to indicate his campaign’s superior organization as much as any major difference in the candidates. Quite simply, the Obama campaign has more money and more people on the ground, organizing.

Our first woman front-runner for president, the first one supported by both women’s organizations and the Party establishment, may go down in history as the first woman to lose due to overconfidence–if not her own, then certainly that of her staff and husband, whose unsavory remarks at Obama wins reflect poorly on his own record. Her staff did not plan well for the campaign to continue after Super Tuesday, and has made itself look bad by publicly acknowledging that they are trying to get superdelegate support and get the non-binding Michigan and Florida primaries to count.

Or she could stage a comeback, take the nomination and become the first woman president.

In either case, I urge you to evaluate her based on her own record and merits, not those of her husband, and to condemn sexist portrayals of women in the media and beyond. And to give Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton the credit she deserves for taking on the thankless job of running for president, a position that few of us are crazy enough to want.

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