History was a long time coming, but it arrived last night when the venerable Associated Press broke the news that Hillary Rodham Clinton had surpassed the needed number of delegates to secure the Democratic nomination.
For women born in the middle of the last century, this is the kind of unimagined achievement that makes you wonder if you stepped into the middle of a new Broadway play, perhaps “Hamilton” spun in another way to make the Founding Fathers turn over in their graves.
Like Clinton herself, these women, and I’m one of them, found their voices during the women’s movement of the 1970s, the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond, and the antiwar movement of the sixties and seventies. And while Clinton has her flaws, as we all do, she was on the front lines of all this social change, especially when it comes to women and girls.
“I got to tell you, according to the news, we are on the brink of a historic, historic unprecedented moment, but we still have work to do, don’t we?” Clinton said at a rally in California, one of six states holding elections today, and the one that could send her off with a big boost if she can edge out rival Bernie Sanders.
History made quietly with math is history all the same.
Yet its arrival in the midst of a still heated primary race makes it awkward for Clinton to fully embrace all that it means. The AP’s count includes the so-called superdelegates, party leaders and lawmakers who Sanders has vilified as unelected and unrepresentative of the voters.
The irony, of course, is that, Sanders—if he weren’t running for president—would be a superdelegate along with every Democratic member of Congress, and Democratic governor. Also, Clinton is expected to win enough pledged or earned delegates in the other contests, that by the time the polls close in New Jersey, she will reach the magic number and be the victor without the help of superdelegates.
It is another irony that Clinton while achieving what no other woman in America has done at the same time is so disliked. How can that be? It’s partly a function of the Clintons themselves, the dodging and weaving we’ve come to know so well, and partly the fault of our politics. Negative campaigning works, and we’re in for a sustained period of mudslinging as the two presumptive nominees work to define each other as the worst of the worst.
Clinton campaigned in 2008 as a fighter, and the Democrats chose Barack Obama, the healer. Obama leaves the presidency with extraordinary accomplishments, but bringing the country together is not one of them.
Clinton often says on the campaign trail that after everything the other side has thrown at her, “I’m still standing.”
The changing nature of the country is on full display. After a long line of white men, Obama shattered the tradition, and now Clinton is poised to continue the change that Obama’s presidency began. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an incumbent president enthusiastically out on the campaign trail working to elect his successor.
President George W. Bush was constrained by an unpopular war from helping his party, and in 2000 Al Gore kept his distance from President Clinton, believing that Clinton’s moral lapses would hurt him.
Obama has given every indication he will be an active campaigner for Clinton, rallying the coalition of young people, single women, and minorities that elected him twice with over 50 percent of the vote, a threshold that Bill Clinton did not quite reach in his two elections—and that Hillary Clinton surely has set as her goal.
Perhaps it’s fitting then that 2016 is shaping up as a referendum on diversity, with Donald Trump making statements that have alienated certain groups and ethnicities, while Obama and Clinton have embraced this new America.
There are plenty more tests ahead, but for now Clinton has gone where no other woman in American history has gone. Adapting what Neil Armstrong said when he set foot on the moon, “That’s one small step for woman, one giant leap for humankind.”