Senators Clinton and Obama both spent this weekend in Selma, AL, commemorating the 42nd anniversary of the historic civil rights march. These top-tier presidential candidates’ existence says more about how far we have come in the past forty years than any speech they could make.
The most remarkable aspect of this season of “firsts,” however, is just how unremarkable it is. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), the first woman to make a serious run at a major party’s nomination, is competing against Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) the first African-American with a real chance at the presidency. Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) is the first major Hispanic candidate. Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) is the first Mormon. Rudy Giuliani, if elected, would be our first Italian-American president. All of this comes on the heels of another historic event: Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s ascension as the first female Speaker of the House.
Each individual symbolizes waning societal prejudices, and that’s worth celebrating. No doubt more celebrations will come as representatives of each racial/ethnic/religious/gender group takes the oath of office. Yet when the “historic” becomes commonplace, it might be time to reexamine the lens through which we judge the extraordinary and recognize that Americans are interested in candidates’ ideas and policy positions, not their personal backgrounds.
Evidence of progress abounds. Cable news fills their 24-hours with incessant chatter about each candidate’s prospects, yet rarely dwells on the impact of identity politics. Image often trumps issues—Does Hillary’s image as a calculating politician leave her open to a real threat from the dynamic, but untested Obama? Will John McCain’s status as “maverick,” which earned accolades from the media when bucking his party, be a liability among primary voters?—yet, thankfully, the candidate’s race or gender rarely dominates these horse-race discussions.
Policy differences have been central to the early campaign, and likely will become more so in the year to come. Among Democrats, the key issue will be the candidate’s position on and prognosis for managing the situation in the Middle East. Senator Clinton’s attempts to nuance her prior support for the war will be compared to Senator Obama’s relative inexperience on foreign policy but consistent opposition to our engagement in Iraq. For Republicans, none of the major nominees is a natural fit with its most active base. GOP contestants will focus on persuading primary voters that they are the best advocate for the party’s core beliefs.