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A triumph of choice

Race and gender politics competed in the Obama-Clinton race. In the end, the American people won.

June 07, 2008

As Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton engaged in this year's quest for the Democratic nomination, a sense of history spotlighted their alternately decorous and aggressive campaigns. Whoever won would register a milestone in American history; whoever lost would feel the agony of coming so close.

So it comes to pass today, when Clinton is expected to withdraw from the race. Obama earns a prize that few dared dream possible a generation or two ago, when elected leaders won support by blocking the constitutionally protected aspirations of American blacks. And yet, even as that dream is fulfilled, another falters. Feminism has remade our society and recorded many victories. Still, the most promising female candidate in American history fell short this year, deferring the grand moment when a woman will win her party's nomination.

It would be a gross exaggeration to imply that race and gender determined the outcome of the Democratic campaign, but they played a role in ways both obvious and subtle. The two candidates differed widely in style -- Obama's big-picture eloquence, Clinton's fine-detail forcefulness -- but voters also were drawn to, or bothered by, the promise of a breakthrough.

How fitting, then, that Obama will formally accept the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington. In 1963, King imagined the day that Americans would be judged by the content of their character; in 2008, Obama was so judged by Democrats, and he will carry his party's mantle into the fall campaign.

Does race still matter? Of course. At first, many blacks wondered if Obama was "black enough." Some whites wondered if he was "too black." Then the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. forced him to address the simmering tensions and old hurts that have yet to heal. Obama moved on to speak stirringly about the issues that unify Americans as well. Still, in places such as Kentucky and West Virginia, one out of five voters admitted to picking their favorite candidate based in part on race.

Nor is our victory over sexism complete. Clinton drew support across the Democratic mainstream and fought to the very end -- beyond it, some might say. Her tenacity might have won praise for a man; to many, it seemed stubborn in a woman.

By any measure, our nation has demonstrated laudable maturity in this campaign, confronting and overcoming many myths -- that voters won't accept a woman for high office, that whites will not elect a black. This time, a black man won and a white woman lost, but a country that once could hardly imagine electing either instead gloried in the chance to choose between them. Today, Obama and Clinton both share a triumph with the American people.

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