02/20/2008 06:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Road Not Taken: How Hillary Lost and Why It Matters

As a fan of Hillary Clinton, it is difficult to look the truth square in the face: the only person Hillary supporters have to blame for her primary performance is Hillary herself.

I am certainly not the first to point out that Hillary's career, reputation, and personality were swiftboated by an interminable deluge of right-wing attacks and a decades-long cultural embrace of Hillary-hating -- a phenomenon that is irrational, self-contradictory, and self-sustaining (if you are new to the lingo, Stanley Fish aptly summarizes the egregious cultural practice in two of his latest NY Times columns and its hundreds of responses). But it was Hillary -- and Hillary alone -- who had the opportunity and the ability to uproot and eradicate this right-wing monster once and for all.

She didn't and, as a result, she will lose the primary.

Since the start of her run, Hillary has failed to systematically address the charges leveled by Hillary-haters or confront the phenomenon of Hillary-hating generally. During the primary, when confronted with a Hillary-hating issue -- likeability, triangulation, ambition, poll-addiction, personality, secrecy -- Hillary would laugh indifferently with her now notoriously vilified cackle. Otherwise, whatever listless gestures she attempted spoke only to a narrative of self-pity (tears in New Hampshire) or overconfidence (her sardonic retort during a debate). Early in the campaign, a series of commercial testimonials titled "The Hillary I Know" were launched to offer a competing narrative: why were these abandoned? The threat of Hilary-hatred as a cultural phenomenon was never really taken seriously.

After the New Hampshire comeback, I had hoped that this pervasive obstacle to her nomination would finally be confronted. It was a false hope. Hillary's tears and her discovery of a new voice were not the first reparative gestures of a new systemic attack, but were lucky breaks that scored a local victory in the Northeast. The tactics were soon aborted and they were never embraced as the winning strategy they could have been.

In short, despite her claims to the contrary, Hillary is not as vetted as she has been protesting. Ironically, Hillary will lose as John Kerry did in 2004: the election will slip through her fingers because she caved to the swift-boating machine. Obama, however charismatic and rhetorically gifted in his own right, thrived because of Hillary's unattended baggage. Obama's nomination is perched upon on the back of Hillary's overturned swift boat.

Certainly there were accomplices in this political death. First, of course, is the conservative machine itself: our first female candidate faced a barrage of misogynistic vilification long brewed by the Right (ever since Hillary's suggestion that first-ladies could have brains) and complacently accepted without a semblance of critique by a large portion of independents and Democrats. The media's insouciant appeasement of and participation in the Hillary-hating phenomenon offered it the vail of legitimacy.

Some might argue that the bulwark of Hillary-hating was just too powerful for the Clintons to penetrate or was rooted in a cultural misogyny too thick for even Gloria Steinem to wade through. Others (and I believe many Obama supporters have argued as much) acknowledge the injustice of the anti-Hillary campaign, but question the need to confront it systematically: why waste time on a protracted debate over an individual's personal and political history when we can focus on attacking the opposition or generate new leadership with limited liability, more hope, and a fresh direction for the future? Indeed, this powerful reasoning will eulogize the Clinton campaign to its grave. But even if Hillary had battled with her haters directly, could her campaign have sustained itself on her personal story alone? As many pundits have asserted time and again: her campaign was all about her, Obama was all about us.

In fact, however, Hillary's story was about us (though, again, to her detriment, she never framed her story this way) and, unfortunately, the real losers in this story are the Democratic Party and progressives and liberals generally. After all, Hillary is just one victim of a much broader right wing assault on American values and institutions waged over the past thirty years. After the most recent eight years of Rovian politics, demonizing of war critics, wars on science, shaming of war heroes (past and present), eroding our civil liberties, and incessant truth-twisting, I had hoped that the most powerful couple in Democratic politics would finally offer a winning strategy to fight the conservative machine. But if Hillary and Bill could not withstand the Republican tar and feathering, what hope is there for American politics? Barack Obama may outrun an aging and meek John McCain in November, but will Obama last a full term against the calumny generated by Limbaugh and Co? How long will Obama be capable of maintaining his high road?