They're the best of stereotypes; they're the worst of stereotypes. The three candidates still standing tall are: the white lady who could be the first female president, the black man who could crash through the racial barrier and the hotheaded war hero with feet of nonpartisan clay.
The stereotypes cut two ways. When Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion beloved of feminists, threw his support to Barack Obama, the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women called him a traitor to the cause, as if all Hillary has to offer is her sex (or gender, as we're supposed to call it now).
When male candidates sharply disagreed with Hillary in the debates, the feminists, not manly men, rode to the rescue of the damsel in distress. The bullies were piling on, as though the little lady wasn't armed to fight back. There were the tears. When Hillary cries women rally to her, identifying with feminine vulnerability. That leaves us with lots of inconsistencies in Hillary's campaign to become the first female commander in chief. Fortunately for her, voters rarely hold consistency to be the highest virtue.
Barack Obama is a horse of a different color, literally and figuratively. He campaigns forcefully as a unifier without making a big thing of the color of his skin. Bill Clinton nevertheless drew attention to it with a comparison to Jesse Jackson, who plays the race card without shame. Most of the rest of us want to think of Sen. Obama as the poster child of a new face for America to show the world, relegating racism to a dark and tortured past. But this insinuates another problem. The Obama rhetoric, devoid of intellectual substance, is revealed as little more than an eloquent voice for "change," whatever that is meant to be.
He has effectively separated himself from the denigration that comes from victimhood. No one doubts his smarts, but white approval is often little more than feeling good about liking him, and this smacks of attitudes of white paternalism. Shelby Steele, author of "The Content of Our Character," observes such complexity in his new book, "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win." He was in Washington last week to talk about his book and conceded ruefully that his subtitle may have been premature. He nevertheless goes directly to a dilemma confronting anyone who holds the senator's innocence as power, avoiding the tougher questions about the content of his character.