It ought to feel like a bigger deal, casting a ballot in the first presidential election in American history with a woman at the top of the ticket. Not that it isn’t a big deal; it’s huge. It’s just that even for many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters, heading to the polls on Tuesday may feel less like a celebration than a hopeful if not entirely impassioned call to duty. History may be made, but it’s not the way they dreamed it would be.
It would be dreamier if the first major-party female presidential candidate hadn’t had to endure a grossly sexist and downright abusive campaign. Or — and this is the main point — if she could have run against a worthy, legitimate competitor instead of an overgrown Chucky doll playing the role of a business tycoon playing the role of a political candidate. This last bit is tricky because the Chucky doll is also, weirdly, a Clinton asset.
As a lot of Hillary watchers see it, the candidate’s primary job has been to fight and claw her way past levels of misogyny — T-shirts saying things like “I Wish Hillary Had Married O.J.,” to cite one of the few examples The Times will print — that many people didn’t realize still existed. And yet all that misogyny may hand Clinton her victory. Had she faced a less overtly horrifying opponent — which is to say just about any other member of the Republican Party — the race would probably be tighter, and Clinton couldn’t count on so many women’s votes.
As it is, the 2016 election may be determined by women (a map released a few weeks ago by the election forecaster FiveThirtyEight showed Clinton winning the electoral vote 458 to 80, if women alone voted.) The depressing irony, however, is that such a show of influence, while potentially thrilling under different circumstances, might not generate as much excitement in this case.
Watching the Clintons triumphantly take the stage at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York on election night would be a sight to behold, but it’s hard to believe it could compare to the raw exhilaration the Obamas conveyed when they appeared at Grant Park in Chicago in 2008.
Unlike Hillary Clinton in 2016, candidate Obama in 2008 had not been in the public eye long enough to collect much baggage. He decisively defeated a reasonably formidable opponent in John McCain and, along with his family, who by dint of race have had no margin for error, he would manage to get through eight years without a hint of personal scandal. So unassailably poignant was Obama’s victory that even GOP attack dog Karl Rove gave the moment its due. “It’s a night for our country to celebrate,” Rove said on Fox News, “and for the world to celebrate.”
If Clinton wins on Tuesday, I suspect we’ll feel less like that and more the way we did (those of us who remember it) when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the infamous Battle of the Sexes tennis match in 1973. Riggs, a strutting and churlish chauvinist, had disparaged women’s tennis and claimed he could beat any of the top female players. When King took up the challenge, 90 million viewers worldwide tuned in, and the stakes went well beyond sports. “It would set [women] back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King later said.
Win she did, but the culture couldn’t quite bring itself to the consensus that she had done it fair and square. Riggs, though he’d once been ranked No. 1, was well past his tennis prime. He was 55, and King was just 29. There was also speculation that Riggs purposely threw the match and bet against himself in order to settle gambling debts.
Trump, of course, is poised to blame his loss on media corruption and Clintonian crookedness, among other abstractions. If she wins, those abstractions will follow Clinton into office and cast a shadow over just about everything she does.
Come January, Clinton may be sworn in as the first female president of the United States. That would be important, historic, even pretty fantastic. But she would also be a president who had the luck (good or bad, depending on your view) of competing in an election that was as much about slaying a dragon as it was about championing a vision for the country or vindicating women’s rights. Even if she wins in a landslide, the feeling may be that Clinton has not so much emerged victorious from the battle as survived it. Given the role of misogyny in the campaign, it may seem that instead of triumphantly moving women forward, she has merely held the line against setting us back.
That’s not nothing in this political climate. But neither is it everything it might have been.
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