It's been a rough year, politically, for the glass-ceiling smashers. Neither feminism nor the civil rights movement, which claimed credit a couple of years back for the golden gifts of Nancy Pelosi and, especially, Barack Obama, cannot have anticipated what their breakthrough moment in 2008 would lead to.
In 2008, the United States had never had a black -- or, if you like, mixed-race -- president. Nor had it had a woman speaker of the House. In 2009, it got both. Are we glad yet?
If we judge officeholders by the now-inane touchstones of sex and class, why, yes, we're ecstatic. Whoopee, let's break out the champagne!
If, on the other hand, the proper electoral criteria in these cases are sound judgment, prudence, tact and such like, well, that's another matter. When it comes to those long-admired attributes of leadership, both the president and the House speaker now come up short, as voters apparently see it.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Not in the parlance of those who have long lectured us about the death grip of white males on the leadership corps. No, we had to do something about that grip. We had to have Barack. We had to have Nancy. They had to bring new perspectives, new outlooks, new ways of doing things; they had to weave new constituencies into the political fabric.
Well, now, that was fine: The only trouble being that America's first black president and its first woman House speaker inspire many to question the whole premise of promotion based on biological tendencies. On affirmative action, that's to say.
It's a premise very 20th-century American in its origins -- and completely nutty in its implications. Affirmative action in electoral politics makes no more sense than it makes on the factory floor or in the corporate office. The content of one's character, as Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated for having said, should be what counts. Indeed, it was to embrace this truth that Americans knocked down at last the segregative walls that had divided the citizenry. Show us what you can do, was supposed to become the operative injunction directed at job-seekers and political candidates.
Race wasn't the only factor that propelled Barack Obama to the White House, but it was a big one, as the mixed-race scholar Shelby Steele noted during the campaign. Whites wanted to feel good and affirming about backing a black candidate, Steele said, so they embraced Obama.
Pelosi, congresswoman as she was from San Francisco, was a different kettle of fish. No national constituency chose her; rather, her Democratic colleagues elevated her to leadership. Still, the moment of her elevation became an occasion for congratulations all around. A woman speaker! No good ole boy, she! Man, O man, as we said in more barbaric times than these, things are sure gonna be different now.
Well, er, yes. Things are sure different -- starting with the widespread sense that the Obama administration and its allies have worn out their welcome. Poll after poll suggests disaster for the Democrats this fall, as partial punishment for the present 9.6 percent jobless rate. Never mind, Democrats don't read polls. If they did, they might not, under Pelosi's leadership, have enacted a health care program for which there was no great demand, and instead worked to bring the economy back.
Might not a white male team have done as badly? Yes, certainly. That's part of the point. Many voters saw, and some still see, race and sex rather than good ideas and basic competence, as the governing considerations for leadership. They got their way, didn't they, for better and, as often, worse.
It won't be that easy again: which is good. A candidate of any race or either sex who has great ideas, coupled with impressive skills and deep experience, qualifies for the vote of any intelligent American. A candidate who's merely -- yes, merely -- black or female, or for that matter white or male, hardly qualifies for a second look. It's been a chewy lesson to ingest. But nutritious.