Now that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has conceded the Democratic presidential nomination and endorsed Senator Barack Obama, speculation has turned to what her historic race means in the long run for women in politics, and what her immediate political future might look like.
Given the raw feelings among some women in the wake of Clinton’s Saturday concession, the timing of a Monday morning panel called “Women In Charge: The Evolving Role of Women in Politics” seemed like the idea of a Beltway pollster.
The freshly extinguished candidacy dominated the discussion moderated by WNYC’s political director, Andrea Bernstein, at Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy. Amidst a far-ranging dissection of sexist media coverage, women’s low levels of representation in public life, and the powerful bloc of working-class female voters that Clinton attracts, Bernstein popped the question of the hour about the possibility of a vice presidential slot for Clinton.
No one unequivocally ventured, to borrow the season’s most popular phrase, that yes, she can.
“I think Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have come a long way in a short time to trying to reestablish the foundation of a relationship,” said Dee Dee Myers, the first female White House press secretary, who served under President Bill Clinton, and the author of the recent book, “Why Women Should Rule the World.” “But I think if you look back over history, the most successful pairings are the ones that had really great chemistry.”
Myers, who did not endorse any candidate publicly during the primary season, spoke about Clinton in highly sympathetic terms throughout the discussion. She is married to Vanity Fair political correspondent Todd Purdum, whose controversial July profile of Bill Clinton has mushroomed to spark questions about the role of bloggers and citizen journalists.
Myers did not conjecture specifics about the Clinton and Obama chemistry. She continued more abstractly:
“I think Senator Obama has to go through a process, and I think when he gets through that process, he’ll end up some place other than Hillary Clinton. That’s just my reading of the situation. I think it’s tremendously complicated.”
Later, someone in the audience of mostly white women suggested that Obama could appoint Clinton to the Supreme Court, which was met favorably. Ellen Malcolm, founder and president of the pro-choice PAC, EMILY’s List, admitted that she’s found herself wailing in the aftermath of the Clinton loss, but sounded content to have her stay in her current position and use her increased political leverage to achieve progress on long-standing problems.
“I think she is going to be a real force to be reckoned with on the national scene for a long time,” she said. “I like the idea of Hillary being in the Senate and working on health care reform, energy independence, and those kinds of things.”
Talking about “those kinds of things” to her vast audience of working-class women in swing states is precisely where the panelists suggested Clinton could be most helpful for Obama in the general election, regardless of whether he gives her a place on the ticket.
“Senator Obama has a lot of work to do,” Myers observed. “This election may very well be won or lost among the non-college women.”
The area of women’s reproductive health care and abortion could provide a way to maintain disappointed Clinton fans that might now be tempted to vote for McCain, said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood and former Deputy Chief of Staff for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“It’s going to be an enormous factor in this election,” Richards said about the abortion issue that, given the Democratic candidates’ shared pro-choice position, was little discussed in the primary. “I think that the difference between Senator McCain and Senator Obama, and what would have been with Clinton, is on the issue of women’s health writ large, not just the question of Roe, and it is as wide as the Grand Canyon,” she said.
And yet as the November work begins, the need for healing after a bruising primary, and the prospect of many conversations to come about the Clinton campaign’s legacy, remain as glaring as 18 million cracks in a glass ceiling.
“I feel that one of the reasons why Hillary lost is mostly because of prominent women in the media who repeatedly stabbed her in the back,” charged an audience member during the question and answer session, as her voice quaked with emotion. She cited Maureen Dowd, Arianna Huffington, and even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, all before she posed her ominous question.
“Why should Democrats vote for Obama when this party has taken Hillary’s supporters for granted?”