Whether we like it or not, it's a question that looms whenever a minority or member of an underrepresented group faces intense scrutiny. The question is this: Is that person facing greater criticism as a minority than he or she would if they were not?
The question has certainly been raised when it comes to President Obama with polls showing a distinct split in how white Americans view his job performance versus how black Americans do. And Michael Steele admitted that this is one issue in which he as the first black Chair of the Republican National Committee feels some kinship with the first black president, a Democrat. Steele stated in a television interview that he believed that he was being held to a higher, tougher standard as the first black RNC Chair, than he would be if he were white.
The first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi can relate. When asked about some of the sexist comments Hillary Clinton faced during her presidential run Pelosi called sexism a reality and added, "I'm a victim of sexism myself all the time."
In one famous incident the National Republican Congressional Committee used the phrase "put her in her place" in a reference to Pelosi, leading many women to wonder, "And just what place would that be?" Then of course there was the famous, or rather infamous, ad in which she was depicted as a witch -- literally. (Click here to watch.)
The reality is that for as much progress as our country has made in terms of racial and gender equality, there are still those who make judgments based on the color or sex of the person doing the job, rather than based on the job that person is doing. The good news is the number of people passing such judgments appears to be shrinking, with poll after poll showing millenials to be the most open-minded generation our nation has ever seen when it comes to racial and gender equality.
But I would argue that when it comes to whether or not Nancy Pelosi gets to keep a leadership post with Democrats, the sexism she's faced is quite frankly, irrelevant.
Without question some of the vitriol and resistance Pelosi has faced is because she's a woman and because there are still men, particularly of a certain age, who may be uncomfortable with the idea of encountering a woman with greater power than them. But at the end of the day there is one question and one question only that matters to an organization, and that is whether or not a leader still has the capacity to lead effectively. And the more of a lightning rod one becomes, the harder it is to do just that.
At the moment Nancy Pelosi is the Democratic Sarah Palin, so polarizing she's paralyzing her own party. And yet for some inexplicable reason the same Democrats who are rubbing their hands with anticipatory glee at the prospect of Sarah Palin running for president because of how much of a lightning rod she has become, seem intent on ignoring the fact that Pelosi is her liberal counterpart.
And both women threaten to electrocute their parties.
Some might argue that if popularity were a metric for leadership ability then by that logic President Obama should step aside.
Well call me when polls show less than 30% of Americans viewing President Obama in a positive light as they do Pelosi. If that's the case heading into 2012 you will likely find me writing the same column about him. Yet despite the "shellacking" doled out to Democrats and nearly half of the country not approving of the president's policies, nearly 60% still claim to like him. (Sorry to disappoint you Rush, Beck and the rest.)
I have listened to Pelosi's impassioned defenders point to all that she's accomplished, and to the fact that many of the reasons she's hated are reasons that make little sense. I happen to agree. Well, to a degree that is. And yet I still don't think that ultimately it matters. The reasons people hate you (particularly when they are irrational) are often less important than the fact that they do. If Pelosi were merely viewed as polarizing by the Republican leadership it would be a moot point; but as the numbers make clear she (unlike the president) seems to be viewed as polarizing by everyone except her friends, family and extreme liberals (including those of you who are preparing to pillory me in cyberspace for daring to write this piece). And I hate to break it to you but none of these constituencies are the majority, nor are they who Democrats should be investing what little political capital they have left in placating if they want to win down the road.
As I tried to explain to one of Pelosi's outraged defenders recently I see this dilemma as no different than if Democrats were presented with a fabulously qualified black candidate who wanted to run for office in a district in which poll after poll showed that voters simply were not going to vote for him no matter how great he was, because they weren't ready to vote for a black candidate in that particular district, plain and simple. Would I consider these voters dumb? Sure. But would I consider it even dumber for Democrats to knowingly run a losing candidate? Absolutely.
Pelosi, and the House Democrats, could take a lesson from New York Governor David Paterson who (eventually) stepped aside, clearing the way for his successor Andrew Cuomo to successfully run for office, after he realized that it was in the best interest of his party to do so. The reason? Because Paterson had become an unwelcome distraction -- one that was turning into an albatross for his entire party.
Similarly Pelosi -- rightly or wrongly -- has become just as much of a distraction, with many Democrats who faced defeat in this year's midterms drowning under the weight of her caricature as an Armani-wearing-latte-drinking-San Francisco liberal elite. And of course in the eyes of some there was simply the image of a powerful woman whom they couldn't "put in her place" so instead they decided to hate.
By breaking one of the highest glass ceilings in government, Nancy Pelosi has secured her place in history. But by doing the right thing and stepping aside, she can secure her legacy.
This post originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a political blogger.