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No escaping identity politics

If a woman and a black man must run against each other in, say, a protracted and increasingly hostile Democratic primary,  can one really prevail?
/ Source: National Journal

George McGovern thinks it's harder for a woman than a black man to be elected president.

Polls say voters agree with the 1972 Democratic nominee, who's backing Hillary Rodham Clinton this year. But what if a woman and a black man first must run against each other in, say, a protracted and increasingly hostile Democratic primary? Can either one of them prevail in November?

It's an important question in a campaign that's being presented in increasingly blunt terms of race and gender during the six-week lull between primaries. Unfortunately for the Democratic Party, it's Clinton's and Barack Obama's aides who are most responsible for presenting it in those terms, with a willing and ready assist from the mainstream media.

Not coincidentally, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows both Clinton and Obama have lost ground over the past week in matchups against John McCain. Even worse, 20 percent of Clinton's and Obama's supporters said the other Democratic candidate couldn't defeat McCain in the general.

Let's start with race and Obama, who vacationed this week at the St. Thomas Ritz-Carlton, which the Washington Post reports cost at least $599 a night. (Hmm, does the Post mention all the five-star hotels that white candidates patronize?) Back on the mainland, recent headlines suggest the controversy over Obama's pastor, which surely couldn't disappear after one spectacular speech, has grown at least three new heads.

Obama's newly released tax returns show he has given more than $27,000 to Trinity United Church of Christ since 2005. On Tuesday, Jeremiah Wright canceled appearances in Texas and Florida, citing safety concerns. And most importantly, Clinton — eager to end a media brushfire of her own making over her 1996 trip to Bosnia — finally weighed in against Wright, sending that firestorm in a new direction.

"He would not have been my pastor," Clinton said Tuesday of Wright. "You don't choose your family, but you choose what church you want to attend."

Clinton's tactics aren't sitting well with the only constituency that matters: uncommitted superdelegates. One of them said this week that the Clinton campaign is "using Jeremiah Wright to scare white people."

"Mud slinging, personal attacks and lying is never good for any political fight or party," the superdelegate told NBC News/National Journal embedded reporter Matthew Berger. "And I see a lot of that coming from one side more than the other."

Said another, "I don't think anybody's saying 'step aside,' but 'stop with the garbage' is what people want to say. Just chill a little bit." And another, "We're feeling her advisers are leading her in a path that diminishes her as well as him."

But Clinton, too, is being put into a box. Were her remarks, for example, part of the "Tonya Harding" strategy a Democratic official told ABC News the senator would have to follow to defeat Obama? (Hmm, would a man ever be compared to the ice skating scoundrelle?)

Indeed, one of Clinton's main struggles today remains trying to wrestle out of the gender jacket she's been forced to wear. As McGovern apparently believes, a woman running for president faces a profound but far more subtle form of bias than a black man. Racial bias can be more, well, black and white — far easier to detect and less socially acceptable, which pushes it further down into the public's subconscious.

Meanwhile, bias against women is often voiced more freely, if indirectly. "The other thing that came across the other evening... [is] the way she reacts to Obama with just the look, the look toward him, looking like everyone's first wife standing outside a probate court," Mike Barnicle joked, without incident, on MSNBC recently. For a more recent examples, check out Michael Kinsley’s column this week on Clinton’s make-up rituals on The headline: “The ‘Max Factor’ Factor.”

Sure, the Bosnia flap wasn't explicitly a gender-based issue, but the subtext certainly is. Combined with questions about her role in the Clinton White House stemming from her newly released schedules, critics have renewed charges that her years as first lady offered her no more relevant experience than those Obama spent in the Illinois Senate or organizing on the streets of Chicago.

All of this is being filtered through a cable news culture that, bless its heart, increasingly presents the Democratic primary through distinct prisms of race and gender. Which gets me wondering: Voters of all stripes have warmed to talk of a "new kind of politics," regardless of which candidate is promising it. But can such a thing ever exist without a new kind of media?

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is McCain, who's still struggling to overcome voters' prejudices against his age. Watching from a distance as the Democrats squabble, however, an old man might start to look a lot more appealing to voters.