Sunday, January 20, 2008

Call us when you're ready

We admit to small faults only to persuade others that we have no great ones.
--Maximes, Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-80)
And so it is with Chris Matthews' lame apology for his outrageously sexist comments concerning Hillary Clinton and other women involved in politics. Since I'm not a regular viewer of his program (which I've briefly endured only once or twice), I've left it to others to establish that his toxic emissions were not an isolated incident or two. In a letter to Steve Capus, President of NBC News, for example, activist Gloria Steinem and Kim Gandy, President of the National Organization of Women, described the following:

During an appearance on the January 9 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Matthews said of Senator Hillary Clinton, “the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around” and that “[s]he didn't win there [New York] on her merits.” Matthews has referred to Clinton as a “she devil,” compared her to a “strip-teaser” and called her “witchy.” He has referred to men who support her as “castratos in the eunuch chorus.” He has suggested Clinton is not “a convincing mom” and said “modern women” like Clinton are unacceptable to “Midwest guys.”

Matthews’ sexism is hardly limited to his comments about Clinton; such rhetoric is just the latest in a string of sexist attacks he has made against prominent female political figures.


In November 2006, shortly after the Democrats took the majority in Congress, Matthews asked a guest if then-presumptive Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was “going to castrate Steny Hoyer” if Hoyer (D-MD) were elected House Majority Leader.

During coverage of a presidential debate last spring, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell was compelled to remind Matthews that Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) wife, Michelle, is a Harvard-educated lawyer after he focused obsessively on her physical appearance.

Repetition of epithets like "she devil" and "witchy" tend to have an overwhelming cumulative effect, creating the perception that the "devisive" Clinton is "unelectable" due to the extreme hostility and high negatives that she generates in certain quarters. There's a self-fulfilling quality to these attacks, and deliberately so. Clinton ends of battling against a presumption that at least some of the hysterical response she generates is grounded in real character and political flaws. She is truly the velcro candidate, which makes it all the more improbable that she's in such a strong position after the first round of primaries.

The tricky question is: if Clinton gets an early lock on the nomination, will the Democrats face the same dilemma as they did in 2004? Namely, a problematic candidate who's acceptable to the mainstream of the party but too deeply flawed to win a national election.

Those who claim that Clinton is doomed as a nominee point to her high negatives, including the alleged 40% of voters who say they would never, ever, categorically and under any circumstances, vote for her. But the practical question is always: what's the alternative? Hillary does well in matchups with all GOP candidates, with McCain presenting the greatest threat to her and Obama:

A Jan. 10 national poll by CNN shows Barack Obama has a 55 percent favorability rating, John McCain 54 percent, Hillary Clinton 53 percent, Rudy Giuliani 46 percent, Mike Huckabee 38 percent and Mitt Romney 31 percent...

Somewhat surprisingly, Clinton and Obama would not only win if the election were held today but would win handily against Giuliani, Huckabee or Romney. This same trend is seen when respondents were asked whom they definitely would not vote for in November. While 38 percent gave thumbs down to Obama and 43 percent to Clinton, 52 percent outright rejected Huckabee, 55 percent Giuliani and 62 percent Romney. The one person who wouldn't be overrun by Obama and Clinton is McCain. McCain's "no" votes [sic] the same as Clinton's, and in hypothetical national matchups, he's in a statistical dead heat with both of them.

Voter perceptions of Hillary Clinton are not engraved in bronze, and a serious of dismissive articles and vicious attacks in the mainstream media have had the paradoxical effect of generating sympathy and raising her public stature. And, maybe, producing a narrow victory in New Hampshire.

The folks at, an excellent resource for current polling, have launched their own online survey that, among many other things, asks: "Do you think that America is ready for a female president?" They also ask whether "America is ready for an African American president."

What, exactly, does it mean to be "ready?" It's quite absurd, really, that such questions have to even be asked. The other day, someone asked me whether voters are willing to cast their ballots for a woman or an African American—making it clear that she was quite prepared to do so, but doubted that the majority of her fellow voters could stomach the thought.

On one level, it's a legitimate question: are U.S. voters capable of overcoming their presumed sexist and racist legacies, or will it be another generation or so before the country is mature enough to elect a woman or minority president? Also, do polls accurately reflect voter opinion on such matters? After all, polls suggested that the 2006 Tennessee senate race—in which African American Harold Ford, Jr., was the Democratic candidate—would be a lot closer than it turned out to be. Polls can't adjust for those who are too embarrassed to admit their racist or sexist motivations.

The fundamental problem for Democrats might be their candidate's gender, or race, and not the specific flaws of Clinton or Obama (both of whom are too reflexively centrist for my taste). The Republican attack machine could, and certainly will, make every effort next fall to transform the favorable ratings that Clinton or Obama currently enjoy. We can expect an absolutely vicious assault based on the kind of racial and sexist slurs and innuendo that have only been hinted at so far in national campaigns. Attacks on Clinton will suffer from the law of diminishing returns, since she is already such a known commodity, but we can only imagine what would be inflicted on Obama.

John Edwards is vulnerable on other grounds, of course, including his long career as a trial lawyer and the media's caricature of his compelling grassroots populism. Unfortunately, he seems to have dropped off the radar screen of viable candidates [1], as determined by ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, Fox, The New York Times, The Washington Post and all the other usual suspects. Call it another self-fulfilling prophecy.

Are we "ready" for a president who's not a white male? There's every reason to fear the answer to that question.


[1] Full disclosure: As an Oregon resident, I won't be able to vote in a primary until May 20th, when the nominations will probably be locked up. More than forty states vote before then. As a registered Democrat, I would be happy to vote in the general election for any of the declared candidates—including Obama, Edwards and Clinton (and not necessarily in that order). If I had to vote in a primary tomorrow, it would be a very tough choice indeed.

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