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The Real Reason Hillary Should Not Be Veep

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With all the talk of Hillary Clinton becoming Barack Obama's running mate, let's pause for a moment to push out the brain fog. The sane truth is: It should not happen. Here's why:

Of course there are all the usual arguments against it, e.g., Hillary's Iraq war vote; her assassination comment; her old-style politics in a year when the presidential nominee will be running as the candidate of change; her party-ripping, politics-of-destruction campaign strategy in the primary; her "most hated politician" ranking in the polls; all of the past Clinton scandals waiting to be dragged out of the closet, her husband's loose cannon-unpredictability, etc. Despite the advantages touted by Clinton supporters (If you don't pick her, we're going to make you lose the November election!), Hillary's baggage would end up being a distraction to the Obama campaign. In the end, Hillary in the VP slot on the ticket would do Obama and the Democratic Party more harm than good.

But all that aside, the real reason not to put Hillary in the VP position is that Obama has steadily and repeatedly shown that he is a dignitarian -- defined as someone who values and chooses to live by principles of dignity for all -- and he aims to run his campaign and his administration on such principles. Clinton, in contrast, has shown the opposite; what, in the parlance of dignity, would be termed rankist. Rankism is abuse of the power that comes with rank. It includes a wide range of behavior, such as: common snobbery, bullying, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, using political status for personal gain, segregation, torture, or pressuring smaller nations to serve the best interests of a larger nation. It is also the "ism" that encompasses all other "isms" -- including racism, sexism, classism, and ageism, all of which have been present in this year's primary campaigns. Rankism is currently so pervasive in our culture -- and so unrecognized as a concept -- that it goes largely unnoticed. The way to unify the party and the country is to target rankism, thereby simultaneously addressing the other "isms" currently at play on the political scene.

One of the best ways to begin eradicating rankism, and build party and national unity, is to build a strong ethos of dignitarianism -- respect for the dignity of all. This happens through our use of language, through aligning our own actions with principles of respect and dignity, and through the policies we implement in our institutions and governmental bodies.

Refusing to blame or label others; articulating a vision of dignity for all; and passing laws and policies that respect the rights and dignity of everyone, regardless of race, gender, economic class, social status, or political viewpoint, are all ways to build a culture of dignity.

I would suggest that of all the major presidential candidates this season, Obama has done these things most consistently. While all of us at times exhibit rankist attitudes, language, and behavior, some of us do it more than others. For those committed to dignity, there is a concerted effort to maintain higher standards, even in the rough and tumble of politics. Obama has demonstrated this commitment, many times refusing to retaliate with character assassination and personal attack when he easily could have, repeatedly lifting the discourse to encourage people to reach toward a dignitarian potential, and proposing policies that promise to honor the dignity of everyone by providing fair and just access to resources, from health care to college education to housing.

Senator Clinton, though well-intentioned and no doubt also concerned about dignity for the larger population, is nonetheless steeped in the politics of rankism. Old-style politics is built on rankist principles: "Old Boys'(or Girls') networks; you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours; if you do that I'll retaliate, and your political career will be ruined; destroy your enemies; win at all costs; use attack ads if it works; keep the powerful happy because you're likely to need them; don't worry about the truth, say what the people want to hear.

That's how old-style politics works. It is also the root of Hillary's willingness to engage in rankist behavior on the campaign trail. Just a few examples: "going negative" with campaign advertising and verbal innuendo that played on the primal fears of the populace; tearing down her opponent, instead of focusing on establishing meaningful differences in approach (which would have simultaneously preserved the unity of the party and helped build a reputation for herself as a dignitarian); blaming others for her own errors; changing the rules of engagement when they suited her purposes (now we should count the Florida and Michigan votes, even though I, my opponent, and the DNC all agreed not to; now we shouldn't count caucus states when calculating popular vote totals); playing loose with the truth (e.g., her Bosnia adventures and the probable impact of the gas tax).

Rankist behavior occurs routinely in politics, and old-guard politicians such as the Clintons are adept at it. The primary error in advocating Hillary for the VP slot is that it overlooks and excuses Hillary's rankist behavior during the primary and during her many years of experience playing insider, old-style, rankist politics. And that is to miss the point of what the voters' deep hunger for change is fundamentally about. Voters this season are hungry for dignity. Voters recognize in Obama someone who is fundamentally respectful of the dignity of all people. To put Hillary on the ticket with him seriously undermines that stance. Whatever other qualities Obama's VP may need to have to "balance the ticket," rankist behavior is not one of them. The VP candidate must subscribe to dignitarian principles and must have a record of living by them, even in the world of politics. There can be no compromise on this point, because that is the fundamental change the Obama voters are seeking--and, in the end, it will be the change that will return Clinton supporters to the fold and unite the Democratic Party and the nation.

Pamela Gerloff is co-author, with Robert W. Fuller, of
Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism (forthcoming, June 2008, Berrett-Koehler Publishers).

See also Dignity for All: The Language Old Guard Democrats Will Have to Learn by Pamela Gerloff and Racism and Rankism: We Won't Eradicate One Until We Take On the Other by Robert Fuller