Not The Time To Celebrate Clinton As Brawler

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET
  • Tom Hayden Former State Senator and leader of sixties peace, justice and environmental movement. Director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center.

There are few writers I respect more, and have learned more from, than Susan Faludi. But she dangerously dismisses racism as a factor in drawing white male voters to Hillary Clinton's campaign in her New York Times op-ed essay this week Instead she endorses Clinton's archetype as a "brawler" who gets "down with the boys". as a model for women candidates in the future.

Sorting out sharply-different perceptions is essential to winning in November, and my comments are intended in that spirit.

Clinton has repeatedly criticized Obama for a "pattern" of failing to win the votes of "hard-working Americans." Her campaign consultants fanned the flames of the Rev. Wright controversy with reporters behind the scenes. In Indiana, she accepted the support of the Rush Limbaugh crossover wreckers, and won 65-70 percent of voters who described themselves as "conservative" or "very conservative." In Pennsylvania, she won the support of the voters Gov. Ed Rendell once described as uncomfortable voting for a black presidential candidate. Many if not most of these Clinton voters plan to vote for John McCain in the fall.

Yet Faludi writes dismissively that "pundits" [read: vapid commentators] "attribute the erosion in Barack Obama's white male support to a newfound racism." What, I wonder, does this most elegant of writers mean by "racism"? Whether it is "new" or "new-found" is irrelevant. Ten percent of white voters openly say they would vote against Obama on the basis of race. That's the "old" racism. Many other white voters correctly resent the label "racist", because they have rejected notions of racial superiority. But their discomfort with Obama cannot be completely separated from subterranean racial dynamics. They are naturally quicker to merge Barack Obama with Pastor Wright than John McCain with the anti-Catholic Minister Hagee. Part of the squeezed middle-class, they resent any notions of affirmative action based on race. They hate feeling blamed for the sins of their forefathers. The notion of structural or institutional racism leaves them indifferent. Among some, the term "elitist" has become a populist codeword that updates the old definition of "uppity."

Faludi ignores these realities as thoughtless inventions of pundits. But her current argument comes close to courting - and rechanelling - the very backlash voters she has written eloquently about in the past. Away from the white woman and towards the black man.

In Faludi's apparent new archetype of the successful woman, if this takes a little pandering and brawling, the message is: bring it on. Clinton "has been converting white males, assuring them that she's come into their tavern not to smash the bottles but to join the brawl." Throw back shots at the bar. Finger those guns. Threaten to obliterate Iran. Throw our nuclear protection around those havens of masculinity, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Hillary is a path breaker for future generations of women because she has broken the glass ceiling with her newfound politics of "pugilism".

The evidence is that white male working class voters deserted Al Gore and John Kerry by margins of 20-25 percent, long before Barack Obama entered politics. The reasons for this mass desertion are more complicated than race. Clinton should know, because she and her husband embraced the Wall Street policies of NAFTA, WTO trade rules, and the sweeping deregulations and privatizations that kept middle class people working longer hours for less pay, and drove whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, into ferocious competition over college admissions and secure jobs. There always was a viable option known as anti-corporate economic populism for the Democrats, but that progressive Democratic tradition was "off the table" during the Clinton presidency. Clinton's new populism on the campaign trail suffered from its appeals to "hard-working whites" and the belligerent threat to nuke and obliterate the enemy in Tehran.

Since when did winning acceptance among traditional white males become such a high priority for a foremost exponent of feminism? Wasn't it to be the other way around, that all men would gradually shed their patriarchal macho codes and join a common struggle for equality and fairness?

Is this the tone the Clinton campaign - and its most ardent supporters - want to leave behind? It's one thing to recognize that the idealism of social movements has to be complemented by a tough realism in contests for political power. But it's another to celebrate brawling, and condemn the press for "primly thumbing the pages of Queensberry" and "scolding" Clinton for - here Faludi uses quotations - being "ruthless" and "dirty." Faludi seems to come full circle, accusing the press of becoming too traditionally female. Anyone watching FOX or CNN, will wonder where exactly Faludi finds these cowering wimps. How about George Stephanopoulos serving as a messenger boy for FOX and Hillary in their accusations about Obama's alleged ties to the Weather Underground?

Let's be absolutely clear. Obama can win the presidency if he loses the white working class by the same wide margin as Al Gore if he adds 4-5 million new young Obama voters, keeps 90 percent of the African-American vote, and wins a majority of Latinos. He should win moderates and pro-choice voters by exposing McCain's zero support for Planned Parenthood positions. He can expect to do very well among voters with his alternatives to Iraq, economic recession, and right-wing court appointments wrapped into his theme of change.

Obama's support among white males has declined under the hammering of the Clintons, but he still has won white male majorities in ten of 23 states since January. He took 52 percent of the white male vote in Virginia before the negative attacks began, and still held 42 percent of those white males in North Carolina and Indiana [where Republicans could enter the Democratic primary. There still is plenty of opportunity to increase those white male numbers with a message about Iraq and the recession.

An interesting question is whether Hillary Clinton and her most ardent supporters can shift from brawling against Barack to embracing him wholeheartedly as the nominee. To celebrate Clinton's brawling at just the moment she appears to have lost means it will take weeks, or longer, to repair the internal damage, learn from the experience, and move forward. The numbers suggest that the Clinton forces can be decisive in Obama's winning or losing in November. And that would perpetuate a schism for a long time to come.