Sometimes your best defense in politics is to take offense. Sen. Hillary Clinton appears to take that tack when she condemns "sexism" in media coverage of her campaign as "deeply offensive to millions of women."
In an interview with The Washington Post's Lois Romano, Clinton criticized the "vitriol" that has come from "misogynists" during her quest for the presidency. She complained that media discuss the race factor much more than gender, even though "every poll I've seen shows more people would be reluctant to vote for a woman [than] to vote for an African-American, which rarely gets reported on, either."
Does she have a point? You can bet your Hillary Nutcracker on sale at many airport souvenir shops that she does.
I don't begrudge the New York senator one bit for feeling upset about some of the more extreme insults she has faced, even though she knew what she was getting into. She's hardly new to controversy. Still, she aspires to be regarded as a strong, historic leader in the mold of Britain's Margaret Thatcher. Instead Clinton is often ridiculed by pundits and other wiseacres as a political version of the maniacal and murderous spurned lover played by Glenn Close in the film "Fatal Attraction."
Not that Barack Obama's path has been free of racial indignities. There's the Marietta, Ga., bar owner, for example, who has been selling T-shirts that proclaim "Obama in '08" beneath an image of Curious George, the cartoon monkey, peeling a banana. Mike Norman, the barkeeper, says the shirts are not meant to be racist. He just thinks it's cute that the Illinois senator and the children's book character "look so much alike." Right.
Remember the jerks who held up signs saying, "Iron my shirt" during a Clinton speech in New Hampshire? The mischief was dismissed within days as the work of boneheaded pranksters. But, as Clinton supporters have pointed out, if a white man had waved a sign at an Obama rally that said "Shine my shoes," we'd still be hearing the national uproar.
Clinton is onto something when she says we have not talked as much about gender as we have about race. The double standard grows out of a fundamental difference in demographics and political psychology: Obama, presenting himself as an agent of change, benefits from transcending race. Clinton benefits from using gender to give her campaign the gloss of a higher cause and as a coverup for her political baggage.
Many women I talk to, including some who dislike Clinton's politics or personality, admire her gumption. They sympathize and empathize with her struggle to walk the thin line between opposing nurturing-mommy/strong-daddy roles that a male-dominated world calls on her to play.
As a result, we have seen that the perceived slights or cheap jokes aimed at Clinton actually have helped give her a boost among many women who empathize with her public humiliations.
All of which makes the endless debates over whether racism or sexism is worse irrelevant to Obama as he closes in on the Democratic nomination. The big question for his campaign leaders is how to give Clinton and her supporters the dignity that will keep them in the Democratic camp for the general election.
The last thing the Democrats need is a replay of the embarrassing 1980 scene at the Democratic National Convention where then-President Jimmy Carter practically chased Sen. Edward Kennedy, his defeated challenger, around the stage, trying in vain to get a handshake for the television cameras.
As Clinton and Obama figure out their endgame, we are again hearing talk of the two as running mates. As a Band-Aid for the Democratic Party's wounds, it could be the most effective alliance since John F. Kennedy chose Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate in 1960. But, as an alliance of two very different personalities, an Obama-Clinton ticket could be bad.
Even if Clinton is not Obama's running mate, it would benefit her political future to work with visible enthusiasm for Obama's election to the White House, even if she privately hopes he loses. She could return to the Senate and build her status as an elder stateswoman as she prepares for a run in 2012 or 2016.
Either way, Obama has shown a historic ability, despite bumps in the road, to transcend the nation's vexing racial divide. If he's the Democrats' nominee, he'll need all the help he can get to bridge the gender divide too.