Just before Barack Obama's Democratic Convention speech Thursday night, John McCain ran an unusually gracious advertisement congratulating Obama on his historic achievement.
The ad, like the McCain campaign's flat-footed official response, was obviously written in anticipation of the expected exercise in soaring rhetoric rather than the graceful but grounded case for his candidacy Obama delivered. There's no other way to explain the infamously ill-tempered McCain's bizarrely ecumenical, touchy-feely reply to a nearly hourlong castigation of his party, his politics and his positions.
The chummy ad also revealed the McCain camp's sly, smug confidence like that of a poker player with an ace up his sleeve. That ace turned out to be a queen when McCain unveiled his vice presidential selection yesterday afternoon in Dayton, Ohio: Sarah Palin, the first-term governor of Alaska.
The calculation was clear: The GOP is hoping to poach large numbers of women voters disgruntled by Hillary Clinton's primary loss from the Democratic column.
The McCain campaign began rolling out this aggressive, underhanded tactic last week, when Obama chose Sen. Joe Biden to be his running mate over Sen. Clinton. The Republican candidate released a series of ads using Clinton's words against Obama and explicitly encouraging her supporters to vote their grudges. One commercial even featured a die-hard Clinton supporter assuring Democrats that it's OK to vote for John McCain.
I'd like to think the McCain campaign is seriously underestimating Clinton's die-hard supporters, but the persistence of the "Hell hath no fury like a Clinton scorned" media narrative which clearly reflects a genuine electoral phenomenon despite its colorfully exaggerated scope belies the wishful notion that disappointed Democrats are all on board the Obama-Biden bus.
And one of the most important lessons Democrats must take from the long primary season is that their voters are capable of the same gullibility and petty caprice that they have long scorned in Republican voters.
In a colorblind, gender-blind world or perhaps even just one in which the Clinton campaign had not deliberately fanned the flames of misguided feminist outrage Gov. Palin would offer little to the Republican ticket. Palin, who has been governor for a mere 19 months, is an anti-choice, right-wing ideologue whose political preferences lie far outside the American mainstream. She has also been tainted by the growing corruption scandal that has engulfed Alaska's state Republican Party, a dark stain we can expect will only spread.
But we do not live in that perfect world, and the Clinton campaign's calculated claims of gender bias have brought old tensions and painful resentments bubbling to the surface. By framing her campaign not as one remarkable woman's quest for the presidency but as all womankind's crusade against a thick glass ceiling, Sen. Clinton paved the way for her vision and rhetoric to be perverted with a clever political stunt by an opportunistic and decidedly anti-woman candidate.
It's now up to the Obama campaign to show John McCain that he has overplayed his hand. Democrats must remind voters early and often that even though John McCain has spent nearly three decades in the Senate and Sarah Palin has almost no record to speak of, both are explicit opponents of equal rights for women and reproductive rights.
No one is better positioned to speak honestly and forcefully to disappointed women voters than Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Sen. Clinton got off to a good start Tuesday with a Convention speech both elegant and stirring. But conspicuously absent from an otherwise commendable address was any specific mention of Roe v. Wade. The Republican ticket's unanimous opposition to abortion rights is a major boon to Obama's electoral prospects, and Democrats cannot let it slip under the radar out of misguided strategy or misplaced gentility.
In a speech that has already been widely credited with healing the demographic rifts within the Democratic Party, Clinton also reminded her supporters of the issues on which they stood together and stand together. "Were you in this just for me?" she asked. It's a question she has the unique ability and responsibility to repeat.
Many women long, understandably, to cast their ballots for a woman to shatter whatever glass ceilings remain however precariously intact. And it must be enormously frustrating to be told that they should wait for the right woman at the right time.
But unhappy Clinton supporters must be made to realize that a symbolic victory can in fact amount to a profound actual setback. Gov. Palin is a woman running for an office no woman has ever held, but she is no more an advocate for women's rights or women's issues than Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a friend to black Americans.
The choice in November will be an unhappy one for many Democratic women. But it's also simple: They can vote for a woman, or they can vote for women.
Michael Scott Leonard is an Eagle staffer.
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