Two for a Breakthrough
For the moment let's assume that we've come far enough to seriously consider electing the first U.S. president who can be described without using both the adjectives "white" and "male." Who has the better chance of breaking through, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? Is "white" the qualification that people are less willing to forgo, or is it "male"?
Obviously, the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination have plenty of qualifications other than race and gender -- Clinton's unique experience and tremendous political savvy, Obama's ability to move people with his stunning eloquence. I think the old rule of thumb still applies: Women and minorities don't reach the top just by being as good as anybody else; they have to be better.
Still, you almost want to feel sorry for someone like John Edwards, who's both experienced and eloquent -- but isn't being splashed all over magazine covers. He has the misfortune to be running in an election cycle when his major rivals are already making history, at least for now.
It makes sense that Clinton is still leading the polls. She has been competing in politics at the highest level since before Obama became an Illinois state legislator.
With one exception, she has done everything right. The way she gained power and influence in the Senate was remarkable, given how skeptical her colleagues were when she arrived. She knew when to defer and when to assert herself, as women in corporate America have had to learn. She has enough campaign money in the bank to weather any imaginable storm, and enough pledges of fealty from Democratic Party grandees to make her still the odds-on favorite. And she has the cleverest politician in the country -- that would be her husband, Bill -- as an unpaid adviser.
Also going for Hillary Clinton is the fact that other Western democracies have become accustomed to seeing women in charge -- Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel -- but not racial minorities.
Clinton has two big problems, though. First is that "one exception" I mentioned earlier -- Iraq. Her support of the war neutralized the issue of whether a female president could be sufficiently martial, but that turned out to be the wrong position, and she's still struggling to get unstuck.
The other problem is that many Democrats are certain that if she gets the nomination, she'll lose in the general election. Democrats want badly to win in 2008, and Clinton has to be concerned at how much support Obama has attracted in such a short time.
Obama, meanwhile, has the advantage of perfect timing -- he has streaked to national prominence at a moment when his party and perhaps his country are desperately in search of something new.
The fact that he has been in the Senate only a couple of years means that he hardly has a voting record for opponents to pick apart. From the beginning, he was consistently against the war in Iraq -- not that he was in a position to do anything about it. Unless there's more to come out, his questionable real estate deal in Chicago doesn't rise to anywhere near the level of Whitewater. And his oratorical gifts are truly remarkable, at least equal to Bill Clinton's and perhaps on a par with the skills of Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator. Yes, he can talk.
He has a couple of big problems, too, even if you figure that his name alone -- Barack Hussein Obama -- isn't enough to turn some people off. First is the fact that at 45, the senator looks barely 30. A president needs gravitas, not boyishness. Isn't there some sort of reverse Grecian Formula on the market that can give Obama some gray hair?
The other issue, of course, is his race. He is at present the only black U.S. senator. There have been only two black governors elected. Contrast that with the relative profusion of female senators and governors, and you have to conclude that Obama's election would be more of a miracle than Clinton's.
Still, I'm not counting either of them out. A couple of years ago, it would have been impossible to predict how thoroughly the Republican Party would self-destruct. The longer the country remains bogged down in Iraq, the stronger the yearning for "something new" -- and the better the chances become for two candidates, Clinton and Obama, whose novelty is instantly apparent. I hope they both formally get into the race and stay for the long haul.
And I hereby pledge never to liken either one to a political "rock star" unless he or she is actually holding an electric guitar.