Many people who know the Clintons insist that the power couple truly wants what’s best for the American people. It’s just that too often their political needs or their personal foibles overwhelm their responsibility to the public interest.

But rarely could the Clintons’ determination to get their way be more detrimental to both the Democratic Party and the United States than if Hillary Clinton continues to play the "gender card" on behalf of her presidential campaign, especially in what is shaping up as a two-person race against an African-American.

Instead of an inspiring campaign between two trail-blazing politicians, the race could degenerate into a spasm of “identity politics” in which two groups – women and blacks – compete over who has been more unfairly repressed.

To this point, Sen. Barack Obama has avoided playing the "race card," favoring uplifting rhetoric about “change” that is underscored – but not overwhelmed – by the fact that he is the first African-American to be given a serious shot at winning the White House.

By contrast, over the past few months, whenever the going has gotten tough, Sen. Clinton has responded with references to herself as an embattled woman facing unfair treatment at the hands of men.

On Nov. 1, 2007, after one bruising Democratic debate, Clinton returned to her alma mater, Wellesley College, and declared that “in so many ways, this all women’s college prepared me to compete in the all boys’ club of presidential politics.”

Clinton then urged Wellesley students to help her win the presidency. “We’re ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling,” Clinton said.  [NYT, Nov. 2, 2007]

Similarly, after losing the Iowa caucuses to Obama, Clinton and her supporters appealed to women to rally behind one of their own and to take a stand against sexist oppression.

In a New York Times op-ed, feminist Gloria Steinem went so far as to argue that American women have suffered more political and economic discrimination than American black men.

“Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any woman (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter),” Steinem wrote. [NYT, Jan. 8, 2008]

A Bitter Debate

Steinem’s historical arguments threw down a gauntlet to a bitter debate over who’s the bigger victim, blacks or women.

American blacks could reasonably cite their experience with generations of slavery followed by generations of brutal segregation in making the case that giving black men the vote after the Civil War was relatively meaningless.

It was not until the 1960s, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights laws, that the United States began protecting the franchise of African-Americans across the South, where Jim Crow laws and lynchings had long held blacks down.

But blacks are still disenfranchised through tactics like those used in Florida during Election 2000 when felon purges disqualified hundreds (possibly thousands) of legitimate African-American voters. To this day, Washington D.C.’s heavily black population is denied representation in Congress.

Though dubious and even offensive, Steinem's arguments about the supposed advantages of being a black man in America were embraced by many supporters of Hillary Clinton as New Hampshire voters headed to the polls. Already, Sen. Clinton had set the stage for a women’s power rebound in the first-in-the-nation primary.

In the days after her Iowa defeat, Clinton had won sympathy from some women who were upset that the male-dominated news media was dismissing her as a viable candidate, what could be called the "Chris Matthews factor."

Then, at a Jan. 5 debate moderated by ABC’s Charles Gibson, Clinton was asked why many voters found her unlikable. “Well, that hurts my feelings,” she responded. “I don’t think I’m so bad.”

Obama didn’t help himself either with what sounded like a graceless reaction to the question. “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” he said, causing even some of his supporters to wince.

Then, on Jan. 7, a day before the New Hampshire primary, Sen. Clinton’s voice cracked when responding to a question about how she managed to hold up during the grueling campaign.

“It’s not easy, it’s not easy,” Clinton responded slowly in a softer voice than she normally uses. “I couldn’t do it if I did not passionately believe it was the right thing to do. It’s very personal to me.”

As her eyes grew moist, she added, “You know, I have so many opportunities from this country. I just don’t want to see us fall backwards. It’s about our country, it’s about our kids’ future.”

Then, seamlessly, in the same soft voice, she shifted into political attack mode: “Some of us are right, some of us are wrong. Some of us are ready, and some of us are not. Some of us know what we’ll do on day one and some of us don’t”

Her wet-eyed moment – a woman daring to show her vulnerable side – immediately became a campaign turning point.

‘Iron My Shirts’

The feminist-solidarity vote for Hillary Clinton got another boost during a final speech in Salem, New Hampshire, when two young men began heckling her with the sexist chant, “Iron my shirts!”

Upon hearing the obnoxious chant, Clinton called for the lights in the auditorium to be turned up. Then, seeing the two young men near the front of the audience, she said, “Oh, the remnants of sexism alive and well.”

As security guards escorted the pair from the auditorium, Clinton transformed the incident into a case study of how men oppress women: “As I think has just been abundantly demonstrated, I am also running to break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling.”

Clinton’s comments drew a standing ovation from the crowd and widespread media attention on New Hampshire’s news shows.

One source inside the Clinton camp said the “iron my shirts” comment angered and energized women in particular, while Clinton's tearing up played well with men who suddenly saw her as more human and more appealing.

Though her deft reaction to the “iron my shirts” taunt may have helped her politically, her depiction of it as an example of male oppression holding her down would appear to be a gross exaggeration.

The two hecklers were later identified as Nick Gemelli and Adolfo Gonzalez Jr. [See New York Daily News’ blog.] They are associated with Toucher & Rich, a white-guy-oriented talk show on Boston’s WBCN radio that prides itself in broadcasting content intended for “immature audiences.”

On Jan. 9, the day after Clinton's upset victory in the New Hampshire primary, the show’s host opened by running down the roster of participants and referred to Gonzalez as someone who “single-handedly changed the course of American politics.”

But instead of explaining how Gonzalez achieved that feat, the show veered off into a mocking discussion of “Afros” worn by black baseball players.

The show’s Web site listed a few “fun facts” about Gonzalez:  “He weighs 345 lbs. … He couldn’t speak ANY language until he was five. …He has never had health insurance. … He talks to himself. … He has a very messy room.”

Rather than male oppressors protecting the presidential glass ceiling, the two hecklers came across as dumb-guy losers pulling a juvenile shock-jock stunt.

Still, the “iron my shirts” incident fueled the anger of New Hampshire’s women as they turned out in surprisingly strong numbers to give their support to Hillary Clinton.

The longer-term danger, however, is that Clinton’s reliance on the "gender card" – especially as Obama resists playing the "race card" – might ultimately pit two important Democratic constituencies against one another.

Identity politics could trump a serious debate over the candidates’ differences on the Iraq War and other pressing issues. In the end, many Americans surely would be turned off by a high-profile squabble over who has the bigger historic grievance, American women or American blacks.

Given the numerical superiority of women over blacks, that argument might help the Clintons achieve their immediate goal of again capturing the Democratic presidential nomination. But it could leave their party – and their nation – even more divided.    

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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