Even as it is being digested on its way to becoming conventional wisdom, the emerging narrative of the New Hampshire Democratic primary offers a profoundly distressing scenario. Hillary Clinton apparently was rewarded with a crucial victory for that teary moment in a diner.
Forget her intelligence, her long career, her hard work, her positions and even the quality of her opponents. None of that mattered after the briefest sign of waterworks. Instantly, large numbers of female voters seemed to have put aside their reservations and rushed to support her.
It is a breathtaking development in the glorious history of women's fight for equality. The first woman with a real shot at being President of the United States rides a wave of tears to a victory. The arsenal of democracy has a new weapon. Will Iran be scared of us now?
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and the other suffragettes must be smoldering in their graves. This is what they fought for?
The moment also is ominous for the presidential campaign. With women making up 57% of the Democratic electorate so far, Barack Obama faces a daunting challenge: how to combat Clinton without handing her victory on a sympathy vote. She can, as she has, accuse him of peddling false hopes and even of making America more vulnerable to a terror attack, but the minute he responds, she'll be the victim. If she cries again and why shouldn't she? he'll be a cad.
As if her being married to a former President isn't enough complexity, the incident adds another riddle to Clinton's historic campaign. Whether her tears were real or scripted is almost beside the point. What matters is that her comeback victory, where she erased a huge deficit in 24 hours, stems from how women responded to her display of emotion.
The diner moment was the only significant event of the day before votes were cast. Overnight, it turned what even Clinton's campaign saw as a large Obama victory into a win for her.
Predictions that Obama would win by double digits are cited by some as proof of the racism of white voters who lied to pollsters when they said they would vote for the black candidate. No doubt that has happened, but the evidence in New Hampshire points to a different but equally troubling phenomenon of gender solidarity.
Many reticent women voted for her because Clinton's out-of-character display persuaded them she is authentic and real.
Some analysts also believe the sudden embrace of Clinton was prompted not so much by the event itself as by repetitive media coverage of it, which included ridicule by permanent nemesis Rush Limbaugh and other men.
Whatever, the result was dramatic. Only five days earlier in Iowa, Obama got 35% of the female vote, against Clinton's 30%. In New Hampshire, Clinton got 46% of the female vote, against his 34%. Although the surveys were not exact copies, the difference in voting patterns is stark enough to be reliable.
That crying carried the day for her is more than bizarre. She has always been proud of her poise under fire, opening a November debate by saying "This pantsuit it's asbestos tonight." Her Senate career has been about showing toughness in a time of war. Her vote for the Iraq invasion, her request to be on the prized Armed Services Committee and her recent vote to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization suggest a desire to be seen as one of the boys on security issues. But at crunch time, when her career was on the line, her tears counted most.
Of course, if men candidates cry under stress, they're toast. Just ask President Edmund Muskie. The Maine senator blubbered his way out of the 1972 race after blistering attacks by a New Hampshire newspaper on him and his wife.
But tears are back. Think how many professional women have cried secretly in the office rest room or into their pillows at night. What a waste, and not very effective.
If she's elected, Clinton can hardly be blamed if she calls on her new weapon from time to time, but she better use it with discretion. It could work if Congress resists her health care plan, but the real test would come in a faceoff with, say, Vladimir Putin. He would see it as proof of our weakness, so that might be the time for her to bite her lip and run to the rest room.