Opinion: Double standard at play in Democratic race


Hillary Clinton, right, and Nancy Pelosi, left, wait to pay respects with Reagan family members at Nancy Reagan’s gravesite at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on March 11. (Chicago Tribune)

By Michael A. Lindenberger, The Dallas Morning News

There’s a double standard in the Democratic race for president, and it’s something we might as well talk about now rather than later. It’s the same double standard that dogged the 2008 Democratic nomination contest, and it’ll likely be something Hillary Clinton will have to deal with for as long as she stays in public life.

There are many reasons for the double standard, and one of them is surely that after facing Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016, she forever seems to be running against a sexier story line.

But there’s another reason for the double standard and we ought to use the word for it.


That word is sexism.

How do we know there’s a double standard?

Let’s start with the night she lost to Bernie Sanders in Michigan by 1.5 percent of the vote.

Thanks to the screwy way delegates are awarded, she still ended the night with a tiny edge in that state’s delegates, but bottom line: It was a surprise defeat and it stung.

True, earlier in the evening she had beaten Sanders so badly in Mississippi that he failed to win a single county. She won by a 2-1 ratio. The next morning she was ahead by 30 more delegates than she had been.

Nevertheless, his surprise victory in Michigan was hailed repeatedly as the largest upset in modern political history, and as a near-certain game changer in the race for the nomination.

The latter assumption was tested almost immediately, when she squared off with Sanders on Tuesday in the hugely important states of Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.


She won overwhelmingly in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina — and for good measure beat Bernie in Missouri and Illinois, too.

Few had predicted anything like a five-state sweep, with a 2-to-1 victory in Florida. If she didn’t clinch the nomination, she’s made Sanders’ job enormously difficult.

In face of all this, most commentators politely credited the results a “very nice night” for the former secretary of state.

Maybe that’s not because she’s a woman. Double standards work in mysterious ways.

But let’s talk superdelegates. Those are the 700 elected officials and other party big shots who get to vote however they choose come the convention.

They account for about 30 percent of the total votes and for now most of them have backed Hillary; the rest are pledged delegates apportioned to the candidates based on how well they do with voters.

Earlier in the race, when the pledged delegate count was still about even, I was routinely bombarded with worries from Sanders supporters who were dead-certain Hillary, with all her insidery ways, would use her advantage in the superdelegates to snap up the nomination even if Sanders had beaten her with ordinary voters.

They needn’t have worried. The superdelegate system may be anti-democratic, but it is also largely self-correcting.

If Sanders were to beat her in pledged delegates, those supers would desert the former first lady within 15 minutes. Verbal commitments or not, they’re free to change their mind anytime they want and their loyalty is going to be to a winner.

But the idea that Clinton was relying on her old connections to steal, if needed, the nomination from outsider Sanders was just too good a story, even if plenty of folks routinely knocked it down. It fed the narrative, as we storytellers like to say.

So it caught me by surprise to catch excerpts of Sanders’ interview with Rachel Maddow on Thursday. She asked how he felt about a losing candidate using superdelegates to catapult into the lead at the convention.

Without a shred of irony, he said he’d be willing to do just that. She asked him twice more, pressing, and he said sure.

MADDOW: I’m just gonna add — I’m gonna push you and just ask one more time if — I’ll actually ask you in the other direction. If one of you — presumably there won’t be a tie. One of you presumably will be behind in pledged delegates heading into that convention. Should the person who is behind in pledged delegates concede to the person who is ahead in pledged delegates in Philadelphia?

SANDERS: Well, I don’t want to speculate about the future, and I think there are other factors involved. I think it is probably the case that the candidate who has the most pledged delegates is going to be the candidate, but there are other factors.

(For Sanders, the other factors in his favor are that many polls say his lead over Trump is larger than Clinton’s is, though both Democrats tend to beat the GOP front-runner in prospective match-ups in the fall.)

SANDERS: We think if we come into the convention in July in Philadelphia having won a whole lot of delegates, having a whole lot of momentum behind us, and most importantly perhaps being the candidate who is most likely to defeat Donald Trump. We think some of these superdelegates who have now supported Hillary Clinton can come over to us.”

To be clear, Sanders should try to steal every single superdelegate he can from Clinton. She doesn’t own them. If he can make the case — any case — that they ought to back him, then good job Bernie.

And further, I never thought the idea of using superdelegates to alter the outcome was automatically heinous anyway. I do think that in almost all cases it would backfire. But imagine for a moment if Sanders wins every single primary from here on out, yet does so by such slim margins he’s still behind in the regular delegate count come July.

Or if something damages the standing of the candidate who is narrowly ahead just before the convention. Wouldn’t the other candidate try like the dickens to get over the hump with the help of the superdelegates? Wouldn’t the party want him or her to?

Neither of those things are likely to happen. I’m not faulting Sanders for leaving open the idea (however remote) of a run on the superdelegates, if the race is close enough that they can make a difference.

But Sanders supporters were screaming bloody murder when they assumed it would be Clinton who’d be stealing their guy’s thunder, even though she’s never actually made that case like Sanders did last night.

I don’t know if they reacted that way because they had bought into that super-sexy narrative of Clinton the crook, or if — aware of the power of that story line — they sought to feed the beast.

But no matter what explains their position, they ought to retract their statements using the superdelegates to attack her legitimacy. Or they can urge Sanders to disavow his from last night.

I won’t wait for either.

As I think I’ve mentioned, there’s a double-standard in this race, and it’s nothing new.

Sexism isn’t why she lost in 2008, and neither is the existence of the double standard. And it sure doesn’t make either Obama or Sanders a jerk.

Indeed, Sanders has spoken out against sexist treatment of Clinton. 

And, finally, it doesn’t mean Clinton deserves to win this time around. In fact, it doesn’t have much to do with the candidates at all.

But then and now, on the left and right, in the media and maybe among all of us, women still seem to be fair game for a kind of condescension that simply doesn’t exist for men.

So here’s a hope. If we’re going to praise one candidate’s prophetic vigor — voice rising, finger waving, tie askew and hair flying — it’d be nice if we’d stop telling the other one to stop looking so glum. To be less strident and not so danged loud.

Or for men like Patrick Buchanan to stop saying, as he did in 2008 on MSNBC, of Clinton: “When she raises her voice and when a lot of women do it reaches a point that every husband in America has heard it one time or another.”

Or for men like Chris Matthews to say of Clinton eight years ago: “We keep forgetting. She is senator from New York because her husband messed around. She didn’t get there on her merit.”

And that’s just by the news media. The language is much sharper, and more sexist, online.

So if it’s so awful that Hillary might use superdelegates to snag a come-from-behind nomination, then maybe it ought to be just as bad for Bernie to say he’d do the same. Or maybe we ought to stop assuming either one is devil in disguise.

Fair is fair, even if one of the candidates is a woman.

Michael A. Lindenberger is a member of the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at [email protected]


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