An Imaginary Glass Ceiling

It was probably inevitable that the first national campaign featuring a black man and a white woman as its main combatants would produce this kind of fault line.

From one side come the impassioned contentions of Hillary Clinton’s supporters that their candidate has been thwarted by sexism, their ardor only intensifying as Mrs. Clinton’s hopes flicker out. On the other side, Barack Obama’s partisans sniff at this: The real scandal of this campaign, they insist, has been the Clinton forces’ sinister insinuation of race into the public discourse.

The supporters on both sides (if not the candidates themselves) have been eager to assume the victim’s role, leaving little room in either’s narrative for the truth: that Hillary Clinton’s gender has benefited her campaign, just as Barack Obama’s race has been a plus for his.

When Clinton backers speak of sexism, they are generally referring to the media’s treatment of their candidate. In their telling, Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, MSNBC in general and a host of other influential male opinion-shapers have held Mrs. Clinton to an unfair and impossible standard, based on her gender and their outdated attitudes toward it.

Just last week, with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign on the brink of elimination, her supporters furiously circulated a link to a YouTube montage of what is presented as the sexist media’s greatest hits against Mrs. Clinton. A female elected official who backs Mrs. Clinton wrote in an e-mail: “No matter where you stand, you have to stand against this sort of sexism by the press.”

But the attacks against the media miss the point. Mrs. Clinton’s troubles had a far simpler and more universal explanation than gender: She entered the race as the front-runner and the press treated her like one. Yes, part of that treatment has included cracks from some pundits about her pantsuits or her “shrill” voice. But those superficial obsessions aren’t really new. Ed Muskie may not have worn a pantsuit in 1972, but he was the front-runner, and the pundits of that era were just as merciless—maybe more so—when he welled up in front of the cameras.

In truth, there have been some obvious benefits Mrs. Clinton has reaped from being the female in the race. For one thing, it gave her a decisive leg up in securing support from her fellow women, producing millions of votes (and tens of millions of dollars) that were hers from the moment she entered the race. Would a male candidate whose campaign was tanking after a poor showing in Iowa have been able to save himself in New Hampshire with the last-minute influx of support from women that Mrs. Clinton received?

It was often Mrs. Clinton herself who stressed the fact that she was not like all the other candidates. In early 2007, for instance, Mr. Obama was dominating the news as he prepared for his “historic” presidential campaign. Mrs. Clinton responded by wrapping herself in her gender and declaring that hers, too, would be a historic campaign.

There was also last fall, when Mrs. Clinton faced criticism for a sloppy debate performance. Her supporters responded by accusing the other candidates of ganging up on her while Mrs. Clinton bemoaned “the boys club of presidential politics.” The resulting uproar provided the distraction she’d been seeking and tightened her connection with female voters, and once those goals were met, Mrs. Clinton shifted by declaring, “I don’t think they’re piling on because I’m a woman. I think they’re piling on because I’m winning.”

Of course, Mr. Obama has on occasion played a similar identity-based game, stoking public outrage a few months ago when Geraldine Ferraro, a die-hard Clinton backer, said that Mr. Obama “happens to be very lucky to be who he is” and that “if (he) was a white man, he would not be in this position.”

Mr. Obama encouraged a very narrow reading of Ms. Ferraro’s words, arguing that “anybody who understands the history of this country knows they are patently absurd,” and helping to turn the story into a public-relations nightmare for the Clinton campaign. (MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann followed up by likening Ms. Ferraro to former baseball executive Al Campanis in the first of what became many anti-Clinton “special comments.”)

But Ms. Ferraro wasn’t arguing that Mr. Obama’s entire political career or life had been made easier by his race. Her point was much more specific, and accurate: His campaign for president in 2008 would have been impossible without it.

Mr. Obama entered the nation’s consciousness as a mere state senator in the summer of 2004, when he introduced himself as the biracial son of Kenya and Kansas, a brilliant and optimistic symbol of a unifying, post-racial future that millions of Americans—many of them white—desperately want for their country. And the rest is history.

In this campaign, Barack Obama has benefited from being black. And Hillary Clinton, just as clearly, has benefited from being a woman.

The final result isn’t a reflection of bias. Sometimes, a loss is just a loss.

An Imaginary Glass Ceiling