When it comes to the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination race, it’s supposed to be victimhood vs. vitality. And when it comes to Democratic voters, victimhood usually wins.
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), is the most opportunistic feminist in American history — she’s a feminist until it comes time to win public support. Then she plays the victim in order to garner sympathy. During the 1990s, she reached her highest popularity when her husband admitted to the Monica Lewinsky affair. In her 2000 Senate race, she acted as though Republican opponent Rick Lazio was going to hit her with a brick during a debate in which he approached her and asked her to sign a pledge not to raise or spend any more soft money.
The 2008 race has been more of the same. In New Hampshire, she allowed rumors to arise that she was considering dropping out of the race if she lost the primary; she got teary-eyed in front of the cameras; she acted hurt when Scott Spradling WMUR-TV suggested that some people found her unlikable. She acted oh-so-upset when Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) didn’t shake her hand at the State of the Union address. And, of course, she played up her status as a woman in last week’s Democratic debate with Obama in California: “Neither of us, just by looking at us, you can tell, we are not more of the same. We will change our country.”
Barack Obama’s greatest success, by contrast, has come from his focus on bridging divides of the past — and in doing so, focusing on his youth. In the California debate, for example, he stated, “I don’t think the choice is between black and white, or it’s about gender or religion. I don’t think it’s about young or old. I think what is at stake right now is whether we are looking backwards or we were looking forwards. I think it is the past versus the future.”
Obama is young, tall, good-looking, likable, and fresh. And he’s trailing Hillary Clinton — older, generally unattractive, harsh, and shrill — in the vast majority of Super Tuesday states. The question must be asked: why isn’t Obama destroying Hillary on the strength of his image?
And the answer is simple: he’s been running a general election campaign in a primary. He talks about unification when Democratic voters simply want revenge for the Bush years. He talks about bridging racial gaps when Democratic voters still want to salt the wounds of racial conflict. He talks about moving beyond the 1960s when Democratic voters want to relive the 1960s.
Obama isn’t running on his race — he’s running as a youngster. He faces a tough dilemma: if he runs as a black man, he risks alienating both white voters annoyed with the racial question and African-American voters who see his black experience as inauthentic; and if he doesn’t play up his race, on the other hand, he risks losing the votes of Democratic voters who will simply pull the lever for the most “victimized” candidate.
Which is why Obama so desperately needs the support of establishment Democratic politicians like Teddy Kennedy. Obama can’t push his race himself. But endorsements from machine Democrats are oblique endorsements of his victimhood status. Because the only reason any machine Democrat would overlook a machine politician like Hillary in favor of a no-name like Obama is his race.
Teddy Kennedy says that he admires Obama because he is “a new national leader who has given America a different kind of campaign — a campaign not just about himself, but about all of us. A campaign about the country we will become, if we can rise above the old politics that parses us into separate groups and puts us at odds with one another … With Barack Obama, we will close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group, and straight against gay.”
And Kennedy is lying. Teddy Kennedy is the most partisan politician in the United States. He cares about national unification the same way Jefferson Davis did. He thrives on interest group politics pitting race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group, straight against gay. And he knows that Obama’s candidacy will inherently divide the country — because people like Kennedy insist that it continue to do so.
So now, the race for the Democratic nomination has become victimhood vs. victimhood. Who’s the bigger victim? The black candidate who is nice enough to avoid ticking off white voters, or the woman candidate who does best when she acts as though she suffers from Battered Woman’s Syndrome?
On February 5, Democratic voters will decide. And in doing so, they will demonstrate that Obama’s rhetoric of change and hope is just that — empty rhetoric. Because when it comes to the Democratic primaries, all that matters is which candidate suffers more based on group identity.