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One-Hit Wondering

Yes, Virginia, there will be another woman candidate in your lifetime.

Hillary Clinton

It’s enough to make a girl want to run for president …

With Hillary Clinton edging ever closer to the won’t-finish line in the Democratic primary, the inevitable rending of garments that a woman may never again mount a successful run for the presidency has begun. Former Kentucky Labor Secretary Carol Palmore complained to Bloomberg news this weekend, “Never in our lifetime will we have another chance to have a woman president.” Last Thursday, Marie Cocco wrote a column for the Washington Post suggesting that “if Clinton is not the nominee, no woman will seriously contend for the White House for another generation.” Days earlier, Kate Zernike penned a piece for the New York Times bemoaning the fact that “there is no Hillary waiting in the wings.” And in Saturday’s Chicago Tribune, Mark Silva asked whether “Hillary Clinton paved the way for anyone but herself?”

No more women candidates in our lifetimes? Not for a whole generation? Can we at least make Sex and the City a box-office success? Do we dare to eat a peach?

Perhaps it’s the inevitable byproduct of the accusation that anyone who failed to support Clinton’s presidential bid has doomed feminism, but the claim that the doors have slammed on decades of future woman presidents is as maddening as the Olympics of Oppression that preceded it. The folks claiming we’ve allowed the presidency to slip through our fingers arrive at this conclusion by pressing the same flawed syllogism: The only viable woman candidate thus far has been Hillary; Hillary did not win; ergo there will never be another viable woman candidate.

Zernike thus sets up her article with a composite sketch of qualities any Clinton successor will require: “[S]he will come from the South, or west of the Mississippi. She will be a Democrat who has won in a red state, or a Republican who has emerged from the private sector to run for governor … will have proven herself to be ‘a fighter’ (a caring one, of course) … She will be young enough to qualify as postfeminist … married with children, but not young children.” In short, the first woman president will have to be conservative yet liberal, tough yet caring, and young yet old. …  Get it? She doesn’t exist! (That’s Zernike’s next paragraph.) *

We all know these double standards exist for females in public life—voters demand toughness but not bitchiness, confidence but not shrillness, authenticity but also glamour. If the Clinton candidacy has taught us anything, however, it’s that a woman can straddle all those irreconcilable demands and still win. She can win more than 16 million votes in the primaries and around 1,779 delegates. Clinton has shown that a woman can win huge at the ballot box and bring in huge money, and even if Obama ultimately secures the nomination, those facts will not change. Faced with all that evidence of success, how do the naysayers prove it can never be repeated?

They argue that Clinton had a legitimate shot at the presidency only because she represented a once-in-a-lifetime lightening strike of marriage, fame, and experience that is not only unique to her but that will die with her failed nomination. Silva quotes commentators who have argued that “only Clinton, a former first lady in an administration that presided over eight prosperous years and a second-term senator who has established her own credentials, could have achieved the successes she has this year.” Zernike’s experts echo this: “Mrs. Clinton had such an unusual combination of experience and name recognition that she might actually raise the bar for women.” Under this theory, Clinton was never really a strong woman candidate; she was just the lucky one who’d married a future president.

By advancing the argument that no woman will ever win the presidency without the advantages of a Hillary Clinton because only those advantages account for her success, we do more to disrespect her enormous talents than all of the oily misogynists on Fox News. All across the country, in the most unlikely ways and places, Hillary Clinton kicked ass as a woman. Why take that away from her now?

Not content with this knock on Clinton’s accomplishments, the naysayers amplify it with the assumption that no woman will ever manage to pull off what Barack Obama has done: emerge from the ether without decades of experience. Zernike here quotes former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers as saying that “[n]o woman with Obama’s résumé could run.” She then quotes Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, as saying that women lack what she “used to call the John Edwards phenomenon and now calls the Barack Obama phenomenon: having never held elective office, they run for Senate, then before finishing a first term decide they should be president.”

Unclear why this is a gender-based phenomenon rather than merely a temporal one. Recall that before it was called the “Barack Obama phenomenon,” it was apparently called the “John Edwards phenomenon” precisely because nobody had yet heard of Barack Obama. That’s why we call them phenomena. Because they don’t usually come with save-the-date cards.

Even if it were true that no new female candidate can appear to amaze and inspire us by 2012, we are already blessed—as even the naysayers concede—with a bullpen that’s both deep and wide. It features female talents such as Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Condoleezza Rice, and former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Why diminish all these women with claims that whatever qualities of Clinton’s they lack are precisely those qualities needed to become president someday? What possible evidence do we have for that?

We have no evidence at all that the next woman who runs for president won’t succeed—especially if one or two possible candidates are tapped this summer for a vice-presidential run. And so we arrive at the real stumbling block for any future female candidate. One way or another, the naysayers all want to conclude (indeed, at times, Clinton herself is wont to conclude) that the Clinton campaign was ultimately derailed by the same pervasive sexism that will scuttle the next woman’s chances. Never mind that this conclusion is belied by polls Zernike cites, which indicate that 86 percent of Americans say they would vote for a woman. Never mind that it’s also belied by Clinton’s own historic achievements.

The sexism argument takes two forms: The media itself are too sexist ever to allow a woman to win a presidential election. And (not unrelated to the first) the public mistreatment of Clinton will dissuade future women from trying for that brass ring. Cocco cites sexist coverage of Elizabeth Dole’s presidential bid in 2000, which “drowned out discussion of her own record.” Yet that didn’t stop Clinton from running for office. And Zernike quotes Karen O’Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, who asks, ”Who would dare to run?” after Clinton’s bid. “The media is set up against you, and if you have the money problem to begin with, why would anyone put their families through this, why would anyone put themselves through this?”

A suggestion: Women will put themselves through this because most of us will have been more inspired by the Clinton run than scared off by it. They’ll put themselves through it because—for the first time in history—they’ll know what it looks like when a woman almost scores the presidency, and it looks amazing. And some of them will also put themselves through it because having been well and truly sickened by the “iron my shirts” moments, they’ll do what women did in 1992 after watching Anita Hill endure outrageous nuts-and-sluts treatment at the hands of an all-male Senate judiciary committee. They’ll swarm government.

If Hillary Clinton has taught the women of America anything this year, it’s never to say never. Which is why it would be lamentable if the only lesson we take from her candidacy were that nothing like it will ever happen again.

Clarification, May 30, 2008: Zernike’s next paragraph in fact contends that she “may not exist.” The hyperbole was all mine. (Return  to the sentence.)