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Hillary Clinton's Defeat: A Historic Triumph

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A front page story in today's New York Times wonders whether Hillary Clinton's flagging run for the presidency is "a historic if incomplete triumph or a depressing reminder of why few [women] pursue high office in the first place."

Let me quickly weigh in with an unequivocal vote for "historic if incomplete triumph." And the only thing I find depressing is that the answer is even in doubt.

I have regularly criticized Clinton over the course of her campaign (and long before it, starting with her vote to authorize the war), but there is no question that she has forever altered the way women running for president will be viewed from here on out. In the words of the Times, Clinton has established "a new marker for what a woman can accomplish in a campaign -- raising over $170 million, frequently winning more favorable reviews on debate performances than her male rivals, rallying older women, and persuading white male voters who were never expected to support her."

She has also forever demolished the question mark hovering over the issue many (wrongly, in my opinion) have felt would be a woman candidate's biggest weakness: the ability to be seen as a plausible commander-in-chief.

It is to her great credit that very shortly into the '08 race, when you saw Clinton on television, you didn't think, "Oh, there's the woman running for president." That is no small feat for a woman trying to break into a male-dominated arena. So the next time a woman -- or two or three -- runs for president, it won't be seen as a novelty act. Because Hillary certainly wasn't.

But the greatest triumph of Clinton's campaign -- a complete triumph -- is the example she has set for the next generation. And not just for young women; her dedication, perseverance, and indefatigable drive make her a role model for young men as well.

Much has been made of the generational divide in the Clinton-Obama battle, with older women rallying to Clinton and younger women drawn to Obama. But the impact of her candidacy transcends this division. I've seen this very clearly in the reaction of my oldest daughter.

She voted for the first time in this year's California primary, casting her ballot for Obama. Yet hardly a day passes without her speaking with admiration, almost awe, about Hillary Clinton -- how she manages to get up every morning, no matter how hard things get for her, and keep following her dream.

I've written a lot about fear and fearlessness, and how fearlessness is not the absence of fear -- it's the mastery of fear. It's all about getting up one more time than we fall down. Has any public figure embodied this more powerfully and compellingly than Hillary Clinton?

Last week I was in a hotel room in Las Vegas preparing to give a speech. Checking in for a political update, I turned on CNN and saw Wolf Blitzer interviewing Hillary. But instead of a debate on who is more electable in Appalachia, or a Talmudic discussion about Michigan and Florida, there was this incredibly human moment.

Blitzer asked Clinton about what it's been like having Chelsea on the trail campaigning with her. Clinton, choking up, replied: "Well, it's one of the most incredibly gratifying experiences of my life, as a person and as a mother. I get very emotional. She is an exceptional person, and she's worked so hard, and she's done such a good job that I'm just filled with pride every time I look at her."

And just as Hillary started tearing up, I realized I was too. This has been an election where, even more than usual, the personal and the political have been constantly overlapping. And my feelings as I watched that interview were no exception.

It was clear that the 17-month campaign had taken a toll on Clinton, but at the same time has been incredibly transformative. She famously announced after winning New Hampshire that she'd found her own voice. But, in fact, she has kept finding it and refinding it -- until now, finally, she seems to be more in touch with her own message, instead of the message Mark Penn's poll numbers told her to adopt.

And in doing so, she has redefined and taken over the Clinton brand. Forget welfare reform, free-trade uber alles, and third-way DLC-economics. Since hitting her stride in Ohio, Hillary has transformed the Clinton brand into one that represents working-class Americans. Because of this, she is the Clinton who will now be most relevant to the country's future.

I see Hillary returning to the Senate with a newfound sense of purpose -- and power. With the presidency no longer in her sights -- at least for now -- she could become a commanding progressive force in the Senate.

Campaigning in Pennsylvania in early April, Clinton compared herself to Philadelphia icon Rocky Balboa. "Let me tell you something," she said. "When it comes to finishing the fight, Rocky and I have a lot in common. I never quit. I never give up."

The comparison was meant to reinforce her image as a tireless warrior -- but it was more accurate and prescient than she intended. Because Rocky actually lost his initial fight with Apollo Creed. After 15 punishing and bloody rounds, he was satisfied just to have gone the distance.

"Ain't gonna be no rematch," says Creed amidst the post-fight pandemonium. To which Rocky replies: "Don't want one."

Even though Rocky didn't win, he was ultimately seen as a triumphant figure. And that's how Hillary will be seen too. Once the disappointment fades and the cuts and bruises heal, the lasting impression will be one of glory, accomplishment, and profound impact.

Hers will have been a game-changing defeat.

If you are in San Francisco today, I will be speaking about Right is Wrong at 7pm at Book Passage (51 Tamal Vista in Corte Madera), and if you are in Seattle on Tuesday I'll be speaking at 7:30pm at the Town Hall Center for Civic Life (on 8th Avenue).

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