THE HILLARY Nutcracker is sexist. Keeping Florida and Michigan out of each candidate's primary vote tally is not. It's hardball politics.
Hillary Clinton's female supporters are playing hardball politics of their own to get Howard Dean to acknowledge that those votes deserve to be counted. During a private meeting last week, a group of Massachusetts women asked the chairman of the Democratic National Committee to confront the ugliness of sexism, just as Democrats are confronting the ugliness of racism as a result of Barack Obama's presidential bid.
"There was an enormous acknowledgement on his part that misogyny and sexism reared its ugly head in this campaign and is an issue that needs to be addressed," said Deb Goldberg, a Clinton supporter and longtime Democratic activist. But, added Goldberg, "The proof is in the pudding. What does Howard Dean do . . . based on our conversation with him?"
What these women really want, though, has little do with gender and everything to do with their candidate's political interest. As they wrote in a May 14 follow-up letter, they asked Dean to declare: "The voters of Florida and Michigan, like the voters of every Democratic primary and caucus, deserve to have their voices heard. They went to the polls and cast their votes in good faith. Their votes have been certified by the secretaries of state of both Florida and Michigan, and their validity is not affected by the actions of the DNC."
The two states broke the rules by holding early primaries. Clinton won both, and counting those results would narrow the popular vote gap between her and Obama and give the Clinton campaign a much-needed psychological boost. With help from Dean and the DNC, Obama has been able to keep those votes out. To pressure Dean, Clinton supporters are adding gender bias to the pot of pure, old-fashioned politics.
The final book on the 2008 presidential campaign will record a great deal of gender bias. The Hillary Nutcracker, a product whose name says it all, is one example. The emphasis on Clinton's cackle and depictions of her as a witch are others. Dean and other top Democrats did nothing to discourage blatant sexist attacks, and, for that, they are paying a price with Clinton's female supporters.
Massachusetts, which backed Clinton on primary day, is a microcosm of the party's - and Obama's - female problem: Clinton isn't giving up, and neither are the women who support her. They feel marginalized because they believe Clinton has been marginalized.
When party elders like Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry got behind Obama, these women viewed it as another example of the old boys' club pushing aside a seasoned woman in favor of a younger man.
Their unhappiness grew in March, when Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont urged Clinton to drop out. It deepened as the DNC ignored their call for revotes in Michigan and Florida and declined to count the popular vote; they found that patronizing.
In April, Clinton's Massachusetts supporters launched an effort (countthevotes.net) aimed at seating the Michigan and Florida delegates. The women first pressed their case with Kennedy, Kerry, and Governor Deval Patrick, another Obama supporter. Then, Kennedy and Steve Grossman, a Clinton supporter and former DNC chair, helped arrange the May 8 meeting with Dean.
They aren't threatening to abandon the Democratic nominee, but they predict the possibility of consequences if Dean doesn't address their concerns, from gender bias to counting the Michigan and Florida votes.
"It's almost too late to repair some of the rifts within the Democratic Party," said Goldberg. "His job as a leader is to do that . . . If it doesn't take place and in a prompt fashion, they will have a serious problem in November."
Obama is attracting millions of new voters, and recent polling shows an overwhelming percentage of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. On Tuesday, Clinton swamped Obama in the West Virginia primary. But Democrats also picked up their third Republican-held US House seat since the 2006 elections, in a special election in Mississippi. It's another sign the GOP faces serious problems in the fall.
Even so, Clinton's female backers believe their party needs them for victory. If Dean is feeling squeezed - he should.
Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.