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Sex, Race and Presidential Politics

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On the February 3 edition of Fox News Sunday, panelist and New York Times columnist Bill Kristol said the only people supporting Senator Hillary Clinton "are the Democratic establishment and white women." Kristol asserted that "it would be crazy for the Democratic Party to follow an establishment that's led it to defeat year after year," and added, "White women are a problem, that's, you know -- we all live with that." His fellow panelists Juan Williams, NPR correspondent and an African American, and Fox TV correspondent Brit Hume erupted in laughter. Williams blurted out, "Not me!" and Hume added: "Bill, for the record, I like white women."

Kristol's concern for the Democratic Party is touching -- and I suppose one would have to interview his wife to know what he really meant. Of course, it was just the boys having fun again at the expense of the first serious woman candidate for president.

A few weeks ago, I was doing work for the U.S. military in Florida, and happened to visit an independent bookstore. By the cash register was a display of Hillary Clinton Nutcracker dolls for sale, and bags of walnuts. After purchasing one, a real man could sit at home cracking walnuts between an unflattering Hillary doll's thighs, and have a few laughs with his pals. I asked one of the store managers if they would sell an Obama doll done up like a shuck n'jive minstrel or an Amos and Andy look alike. Of course not, I was told, that would be racist.

It has become increasing clear in this presidential campaign that it is harder to run as a woman than as an African American male.

Senator Clinton made this point gently herself on the Tavis Smiley Show on Friday, February 1. Smiley asked what one thing bothered her most about what the press and people said about her. She told Tavis that she was amazed when after New Hampshire the press was shocked to discover that she had feelings, cared about the causes she espouses and that she showed emotion by tearing up. Clinton explained that of course she cares and feels deeply, but that it is difficult for a woman candidate to get the right balance between seriousness and emotion. A woman running for president has to be seen as tough enough to be commander-in-chief, and at the same time caring enough to understand the problems of the American people.

What's more, Clinton told Smiley, women have to get the hair and dress thing right or else that too becomes a campaign issue. Clinton went on to tell Tavis about the meeting she had with me at the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, when I as the ambassador invited leading Finnish women politicians, including the Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs, and the president of the Bank of Finland to meet the First Lady. These highly accomplished Finnish women shared stories with Hillary about how the press commented on their dresses or their stockings, and how they were still often excluded from Finland's male sauna culture.

The U.S. press seems much more sensitive about so-called racial comments than about sexist ones. The overheated coverage of Senator Clinton's historical reference to LBJ's important role in passing civil rights legislation is but one example. Numerous liberal friends of mine have been quick to accuse the Clinton campaign of playing the "race card." I have heard few defenses by these same friends of the often sexist coverage of Hillary Clinton by the mainstream press.

It was also striking that in the Democratic debate at the Kodak Theater Senator Clinton was questioned forcefully about why she can't control her husband. Senator Obama was not asked about some of the controversial and racially charged remarks that his very bright and feisty wife Michelle has made in his support. The fact that Michelle made Barack quit smoking before she would let him declare for president, is never mentioned as a sign that he might be under her thumb or a weak man.

Of course, it is historic for the Democratic Party to be facing the choice of nominating either its first woman presidential candidate or its first African American. I asked my colleague at Occidental College, professor Caroline Heldman -- editor of the study "Rethinking Madame President" -- whether it is more of a risk for the Democrats to nominate a woman or a black candidate. Heldman believes that it is probably a wash. She estimates that polls will be off about 10% for either Hillary or Barack -- that is to say, about 10% of likely voters will not tell the truth about their willingness to vote for a woman or a black. The drop-off between polls and actual voting for an African American was displayed in Harold Ford's race for Senate in Tennessee. This tendency has been labeled "the Bradley effect" after former LA Mayor Tom Bradley's losing race for Governor of California where polls failed to indicate accurately racial voting patterns.

Heldman believes that the presidency is still viewed as a masculine job, and there will be a similar "Bradley effect" for any woman running for the office. Senator Clinton might be able to make up the 10 percent gap by increasing turnout among women, especially moderate Republican women. Since the African American community already votes Democratic, Obama would have to make up the short fall by winning more independent voters.

According to Heldman, the sex or race disadvantage for Clinton or Obama is similar. Both would have to overcome it with added turnout of women, independents or both.

For Democratic voters the choice comes down to one that actually transcends race and gender -- who would make the best president. On the question of who might best win the election, both candidates share progressive values and similar programs, and both would be viciously attacked by Republicans as liberals, and for their respective gender or race. The argument that one or the other of them will attract more Republicans is not convincing. I doubt that many right wingers who "hate" Hillary, will embrace Barack.

Senator Clinton has been vetted by the media and attacked for over a decade by right wing opponents. It is fair to say that Senator Obama's career has not been given as thorough a going over. A leading TV correspondent recently said to me, "We really don't know too much about Obama except that he has an appealing life story and delivers great speeches." The front page article in Sunday, February 3 New York Times on the compromises that Obama made in his nuclear bill and his relationship with power companies in Illinois is a useful start at a more careful examination of his political career. The last thing that the Democratic Party needs is to find out some unsettling or startling information about its nominee after the convention is over and the general election has begun.

Senator Clinton's history and her husband can be viewed in a variety of lights. Former President Clinton and his record seem to be viewed positively, at least with Democratic voters and some moderate Republicans -- but his over-the-top behavior in South Carolina was troublesome. He tends to want to be the campaign manager, instead of a supportive spouse. In the general campaign, he would be a great asset especially in inner city and minority areas. She will have to continue to make clear that she is the candidate and will be in charge in the White House.

I have previously argued why I believe that Senator Clinton would make an even better president than her husband. I am less sure that this is the case with Senator Obama, and simply hoping it is true, is not enough for me. It is a good thing for Democrats that we have a competitive race -- and it is vital that both candidates be subjected to in depth scrutiny. We want the strongest candidate in the field come the fall. Too much is at stake. Anyone who thinks that the Republicans will roll over and play nice slept through the last four campaigns.