As I suggested in my first post this year, the problem with the Democratic field is not that it is too shallow but that it is too deep. Unlike the previous two races during which it was impossible to get excited even about the eventual nominee, the 2008 race has attracted several likeable, clear-minded, and interesting candidates. And three of them, at least, seem viable in the general election as well as the primaries. Although electability still looms large on the minds of Democrats who are tired of losing, the truth is that Bush has made such a mess and the Republican candidates are so messy that the field is open for one of a number of interesting Democratic candidates.
Without a doubt, part of what is energizing the Dems regarding the race is the probability that our nominee will make history as the first Black or first female major-party nominee. The challenge of this history-making choice was initially clear primarily among Black women voters, who as carriers of the double-bind of gender and race were closely scrutinized and asked yet again "Which is more important?" The good news earlier on was that Black women refused to answer the question too neatly. Those who supported Clinton did so for complicated reasons not easily boiled down to racial treason or radical feminism. Obama's supporters too offered reasoning more than skin deep. But now the race is close, with Obama winning Iowa and Clinton New Hampshire. And the gloves are off.
To be sure, Gloria Steinem's analysis of race was not nearly sophisticated enough in her op-ed piece in yesterdays NY Times, but her reminder that women's rights and racial justice movements operate most effectively in tandem, not in competition with one another was appropriate and thought provoking. The chasm that developed over the issue of suffrage following the Civil War when white women who had struggled for abolition resented the enfranchisement of Black men in glaringly racist terms has obviously not healed almost 150 years later. Obama-supporters are charged with sexist motives in advancing the cause of the Black man; Clinton-supporters are charged with racism in their criticisms of Obama. And although at the end of the day, the de facto enfranchisement of Black men took and continues to take a lot longer than the enfranchisement of white women, the history of the struggle is a complicated one in which the rights of women, white and Black, have often taken a backseat to the rights of men, including every now and then a Black man. In a word, Black men do get some of the benefits of male privilege, just as white women get some of the benefits of white privilege.
While recognizing these truths is critical for our strategies in making history, we cannot allow these realities to create a charge in the atmosphere that will ultimately defeat our candidate whoever s/he is. The real tragedy of the 2008 Democratic campaign would not be the election of Clinton v. Obama, or of Obama v. Clinton. The real tragedy would be for the zeal of the primaries to render either unpalatable in the general election and restore the White House to forces that are inimical to African American and women's rights.