Hillary Clinton's Presidential Campaign Finally Gets It

06/04/2015 10:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

There's a scene in the movie My Fair Lady when a lower-class flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, is being taught to speak the "King's English" by an upper-class Englishman, Professor Henry Higgins, a phoneticist who has appointed himself her speech instructor. Professor Higgins requires her to repeat over and over after him, "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." When, after many repetitions, Miss Doolittle's pronunciation approaches that of an upper-class individual, Professor Higgins exclaims, "I think she's got it! I think she's got it!"

In public speeches and in a recent blog post, I have said that the central issue for the 2016 presidential contest is the restoration and protection of voting rights. Specifically I wrote in that blog post:

THE central issue that potentially can have an enduring impact, regardless of who is elected president of the United States: The initiation of a massive registration of eligible voters and increasing the magnitude of the actual turnout of those persons who have been registered to vote.

Just as in the years immediately following our Civil War and putative Reconstruction, the issue of voting rights and the exercise of the right to vote was paramount -- so it is to TODAY. It is THE issue affecting to any and all other domestic issues.

It is therefore fitting that Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading contender for the Democratic Party's nomination for president in 2016, made voting rights the centerpiece of a speech at a major campaign stop in Houston today. To paraphrase Professor Higgins, I think one of the candidates running for president of the United States has got it!

This voting-rights initiative will only further underscore that overarching question that her campaign presents to the country: Does the unique, historic opportunity to elect, for the first time, a credibly qualified woman as president of the United States really preempt all other currently known or anticipated issues in the 2016 presidential election?

In the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential primary I initially favored former U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina). The fact that he'd kicked off his campaign in poverty-stricken Louisiana had struck a chord with me because I thought no other candidate would make poverty and income inequality a primary focus of his or her campaign. But as the contest heated up, I began to rethink my support of Edwards and waiver between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both U.S. senators at the time. Around this time I had two influential experiences.

One was hearing about a conversation between two friends, both African-American women. One woman was active in the Obama primary effort in South Carolina, and the other was working on behalf of Clinton. The woman working for Clinton asked her friend how she could seriously be supporting Obama; didn't she know that Obama's mother was white? In response, the friend asked her Clinton-supporting friend if she was aware that her preferred candidate's mother was also white.

The other experience occurred as I was waiting my turn in a barbershop in East Palo Alto. I'd struck up a conversation with an elderly African-American woman, and at some point I indicated to her that, by that time, I'd finally decided to support Obama. Looking straight into my eyes, she told me why she believed I should not support Obama's candidacy for president. She contended that if he were elected president, "They will kill him," and that as African-American seniors old enough to be his parents, we had a moral responsibility to protect this young, beautiful, and talented man from the dreadful consequences of his presidential ambitions.

I ultimately voted for Obama, but I never forgot those two experiences.

Now I again find myself at a historical impasse. On the Democratic side, all the other declared candidates for the presidential nomination are men. The one woman on the Republican side, Carly Fiorina, seems a very long shot, and her views are at odds with several of my core beliefs. In fact, I have not yet decided whom I will support for president of the United States in the 2016 election. However, there is something that hangs like the sword of Damocles over my head. It may be the same for some other voters. Stated simply, this just may be the time to elect a woman to the presidency.

In the second half of the 19th century, during the Civil War and Reconstruction, a heated debate arose among abolitionists over the proposed 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which sought to ensure that the emancipated slaves, now free persons, were fully guaranteed the protections of the Constitution. The disagreement pertained to whether the 14th Amendment should also guarantee equal rights to women. This question was incredibly divisive; led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, many abolitionists who were also women's suffragists opposed the amendment because it failed to extend its protections to women. The movements for Black civil rights and women's rights would remain divided for decades.

Yes, I remain convinced that the restoration and protection of voting rights is central to the forthcoming presidential election, but another important issue is that it may no longer be practically or politically feasible to postpone finally electing a credibly qualified woman as president of the United States. In light of our earlier history of deferring political opportunities for qualified women, maybe we are arriving at a point where we can say as a nation that, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, we have finally "got it" with respect to enabling a Hillary Clinton or any other qualified woman to shatter the proverbial "glass ceiling" barring them from the Oval Office.

Like many other Americans, I am anxiously waiting to see what other realistic alternatives, if any, I have for the forthcoming presidential election.