In 1994, shortly before the stroke that killed him, Richard Nixon had a last conversation with his former speechwriter William Safire. As usual, the talk turned to politics, and specifically to the coming presidential election, two years away. "Let's get a woman on the ticket," Nixon remarked. "It hurts the Democrats, but it would help us." Now that Hillary Clinton has secured the top spot on this year's Democratic ticket, it behooves us to think about the wisdom behind Nixon's statement and its implications for this year's election.
Nixon was speaking like the consummate political pro that he was. His remark reminds me of the conversation that my father, an exact contemporary of Nixon's, had with Robert Kennedy early in the 1960 presidential campaign, when he told RFK that many Jews were reluctant to vote for his brother because they thought his father Joe was an anti-Semite who had favored Hitler. Robert Kennedy, another political pro who was speaking to my father for the first time, took no offense. He replied not only that he was well aware of the problem (which I later found had surfaced in previous campaigns in Massachusetts), but that his father had in fact contributed significantly to Jewish charities. He assured my father that those contributions had taken place some time previously, and he wasted no time confirming or denying the allegation against his father, which he knew very well was true. All that mattered to both RFK and my father was to elect JFK, and that they managed to do.
Nixon made his remark a decade after 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro had contributed significantly to Walter Mondale's crushing defeat. While she was qualified, a great many older women in the Democratic base were not yet ready for a woman on the ticket. What Nixon grasped was that while a woman on the Democratic ticket had alienated some of the Democrats' base, a woman on the Republican ticket might draw swing voters, in part because her choice would not look like pandering to the base. And it was a Republican, John McCain, who became the next Presidential candidate to run with a woman on the ticket, although his particular choice turned out to be unfortunate.
The question now, of course, is not whether Hillary Clinton belongs on the ticket--she has won the nomination. The question is the role she wants gender to play in the coming campaign. Two questions in particular are important: the nature of her rhetoric, and her own choice of a running mate.
Clinton began her campaign late last year emphasizing her role as the putative first female president, with ads featuring her mother. When Bernie Sanders provided unexpectedly strong opposition, she moved away from that theme and argued instead that she was the more qualified and realistic candidate, the one who cold "get things done." Meanwhile, black voters favored her in the primaries by far larger margins than female voters did. But literally the instant that she clinched the nomination on Tuesday, the feminist theme took center stage again--not only in her own victory speech, but in hundreds of comments by supporters. Once again we are hearing that she must be elected to prove to the women of America that they, too, can become President--and to provide them with some emotional revenge for all the slights that they have suffered at men's hands in various walks of life. Once again she is saying that she is running to honor the hardships endured by her late mother. Believing as I do that it is very important that she prevail over Donald Trump in November, I feel compelled to ask--is this good politics?
In my opinion, it is not--and the example of Barack Obama in 2008 helps prove why. At no time during the campaign, I believe, did Obama ever argue that he should be elected because he would be the first black President. Race was an issue on which he had to play defense, not offense, particularly after Jeremiah Wright's sermons became known, and he dealt with the issue the way John Kennedy dealt with religion in 1960, by convincingly explaining that Wright's views did not represent his own while declining to condemn them categorically. Of course he knew that he would win the overwhelming support of black voters, and that the problem was to secure enough white ones. And that he managed to do,. not once but twice.
This will be, I suspect, a hard principle for Clinton to keep in mind, because she is surrounded by women and men who feel their mission is to get the first woman into the White House and who believe that their cause must prevail by virtue of its obvious righteousness. They are drawn from a social and intellectual stratum of our society in which the need to advance women more rapidly is taken for granted, and any dissent from that position marks one as a retrograde yahoo. But the election, let me repeat, will be decided in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. All those with feminist sympathies in those states will vote for Clinton, but that will not, I suspect, be enough to win her the votes of any of them.
And it is for this reason, too, that any talk of a second woman on the Democratic ticket ought to be nipped in the bud right now. Yes, one can easily argue that all but two major party tickets to date have been composed entirely of men, but we are talking politics today, not abstract justice. Donald Trump has gotten where he is largely because of widespread resentment of political correctness, and one cannot compete effectively with him for swing voters by throwing political correctness in their face. Some of course are attracted by the idea of Elizabeth Warren on the ticket, but I doubt very much that she would be interested--the position would neuter her politically, as it has so many others--and in any case, it is a bad idea. With Bernie Sanders obviously out of the running as well, the Democratic Party has a shocking lack of white male leaders of any distinction, but the vice presidential candidate, in my opinion, should in any case be a man. This morning an analysis in the New York Times suggests that the eclipse of the white voter has been greatly exaggerated.
Let me close with two related observations. I will address the first in particular to all my female and minority readers, of whom I know there are quite a few. The emphasis on race and gender as sources of prejudice and obstacles in the workplace in recent decades has been somewhat misleading. Far too many minority and female Americans seem to feel that white males simply never have problems rising to the top of their field of endeavor by virtue of their "white male privilege." This is, frankly, silly. Since the founding of the republic, simply being a white male has never been a guarantee of anything. And today, an equally great problem in our workplaces is their tendency to marginalize anyone with unusual gifts, courage, or a tendency to take the job seriously--the lesson that the series The Wire taught in season after season. The overemphasis of demographic characteristics works against an emphasis on ability, because ability is indeed distributed relatively equally among races and genders.
Last but not least: anyone who thinks that the most important goal of this election is to elect a woman is making a critical assumption about the state of our nation. That is that the shape of our society is fundamentally just and we are moving in the right direction--our biggest problem is our failure to be fair to women and minorities. Others among us, particularly in the younger generation, believe that what a president will do is more important than exactly who they are. Clinton has gotten where she is by cultivating the Establishment, from Goldman Sachs to Henry Kissinger. She will govern as an establishment figure. She will also, in my opinion, have us involved in a new Middle Eastern war, probably with Syria, within two years. She may manage to do what I outlined here last December: to bring our long, bitter, useless political crisis to an end and move us into an era of consensus. But that era will not be one of the more inspiring periods of American history.