06/05/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Questioning Clinton's Defeat

My daughter better not be our first woman president.

She can't run until 2036. By then, a woman in the White House should be about as shocking as a woman police officer.

Should be.

But we can screw it up. We can screw it up by telling ourselves lies about the role sexism has played in the race for this year's Democratic nomination. We can choose to learn nothing real from 2008.

I, as an Obama supporter who's grown weary of the Clintons, can try to shoo them away faster by pretending sexism hasn't tainted this campaign. I can fail my daughter by telling myself the lie that it's just part of the rough stuff of politics for a journalist to compare a US senator to Glenn Close's bunny-boiling character in Fatal Attraction. I can shrug off the slinging of sexist slurs in our political discourse by everyone from misogynistic blog trolls to comedy star Tina Fey, who was supposedly helping Senator Clinton when she delivered her "bitches get things done" endorsement on Saturday Night Live.

I also run the risk of wishful thinking, of noticing only the women who've managed to smash through the "glass ceiling" and climb right on through. I am, after all, typing these words in Seattle, Washington. My governor is a woman. Both of my US senators are women.

I'm trying to guard against convenient, complacent, knee-jerk thinking.

I urge Senator Clinton's supporters to do the same.

Not for the sake of party unity.

Rather, because our first woman president is out there somewhere listening. Whether that future president is Senator Clinton herself or an Army officer leading her troops through their third tour in Iraq or your own extraordinary daughter, her political future depends on learning the lessons of 2008 in all their complexity.

Learning grows out of questioning. So I'll try not to preach. I'll just suggest some questions -- some starting points for discussion with the girls, women, and feminist men in your life:

* What if Senator Clinton had voted against the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002"? Would Senator Obama's campaign even exist if the best-known Democratic candidate had demonstrated her wisdom and experience by opposing the war before it began, before it turned into a fiasco?

* What if Senator Clinton hadn't built her campaign around what proved to be a disastrous assumption: that she would lock up the nomination on February 5? What if she'd had the funds and organization in place to avoid losing a dozen contests in a row?

* What if Senator Clinton had shunned PACs and big-money donors? What if she'd trusted in the grassroots enthusiasm for her historic campaign? What if she'd been able to stake her claim as a presidential candidate free from debts to special interests?

* What if Senator Clinton had resisted the temptation to use her belligerent, gaffe-prone husband as a campaign surrogate? Would African-Americans have abandoned her in such huge numbers if Bill Clinton hadn't glibly compared Senator Obama's early successes to those of Jesse Jackson twenty years earlier?

* What if Senator Clinton was Senator Rodham? What if her reaction to the humiliation of the Lewinsky scandal had been to make a dignified exit from her marriage and begin a new life as an unmistakably autonomous, self-reliant woman? What if she'd rejected the cynical old Mark Penn/Dick Morris/Karl Rove political style and reconnected with that idealistic, determined Hillary Rodham who stares out at us from photos taken during her Wellesley College days?

* What if the worst wound of Senator Clinton's campaign hadn't been self-inflicted? What if she'd avoided the bizarre spectacle of claiming repeatedly, gratuitously, and dishonestly that she'd dodged sniper fire on a Bosnian tarmac?

* What if Senator Clinton hadn't waffled on the question of whether Florida and Michigan should be penalized for moving the dates of their primary elections? How many more delegates might she have today if she'd traveled to those states ahead of time and used her unique stature as a senator and former first lady to persuade state legislators to keep those primaries where the DNC wanted them? And even if she'd failed, how much more principled would her count-all-the-votes stance now seem?

I'm not running out of questions. But even the most patient readers must, by now, be running short of time. So I'll stop.

I've come to my own preliminary conclusions about these questions.

Readers will have to decide for themselves.

Some will dismiss the "what ifs" piled high around Senator Clinton's campaign and chalk her defeat up to insurmountable sexism.

Others will wrestle with these questions and the many, many more that haven't occurred to me. Some of these people will try to chart new, better paths to the White House. One of them will be our first woman president. Another will be our second.

And this, I expect, will go on and on until we evolve into a nation that squanders nobody, a nation that picks its leaders from its full, vast pool of available talent.

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