Perils of Identity Politics: Hillary's Learning Something About Loyalty

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Feb 15, 2008 12:01 AM
Perils of Identity Politics: Hillary's Learning Something About Loyalty

A friend dropped by for a cup of coffee the other day after a visit to her mother at Leisure World of Maryland, where the wealthy live in leisurely retirement. "Hillary has the Bubbie Brigade behind her," she said, shaking her head in wonder. Nobody knows this better than Bill Clinton, who went to tea with the Leisure World ladies a day or two before the Potomac primaries. Older women are not necessarily Bill's cup of tea, but the ladies -- many of them "senior feminists" -- were thrilled. They want to see a woman in the White House before they die.

Nice thoughts, but identity politics are rarely so benign as these ladies suggest. This election campaign is largely driven by personality, and identity politics cover a multitude of sinners tempted to indulge groupthink at the expense of independent thinking. Enhancing individual rights collectively can backfire, leading to a descent into prejudice. That's the price of multipurpose, multicultural plotting.

Hillary, for a good example, has been counting on the loyalty of Hispanic voters. But when she replaced Patti Solis Doyle, her national campaign manager and the most prominent Latina in her campaign, with Maggie Williams, a loyalist without Latina credentials, many Hispanics perceived it as disloyalty to them. Ms. Solis Doyle, the sixth child of Mexican immigrants, had been with Hillary since 1991. The disappointment was especially bitter after Hillary won California with a late Hispanic surge.

Steven Ybarra, a California superdelegate who heads the voting rights committee of the Hispanic caucus of the Democratic National Committee, sent a fiery e-mail to Latino voters, demonstrating that like Latin lovers, Latino voters do not cotton to being jilted. "Apparently, loyalty is not a two-way street," he wrote. "Latino superdelegates like myself ... will have cause to pause."

Patti Solis Doyle will remain as an "adviser," but she obviously does not expect to do much advising. She says she looks forward to spending more time with her kids. Only a year ago, she was described as Hillary's "single most important political adviser." Dumping Ms. Solis Doyle comes just as the campaign moves to Texas, where Hispanics make up a third of the Democratic constituency. The fall-out could be lethal. Identity politics have played to the Clintons' advantage for years, but now the worm is turning. Identity politics hurt Hillary badly in South Carolina after Bill offended many black voters with his comparison of Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson. (Jesse, relegated to the sidelines, seemed happy enough to see his name in the papers again.)

Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Clinton loyalist, had earlier learned the new rules at some pain when he mentioned race in the debate with a commonplace observation that certain whites in his state would not vote for a black man. This was taken as a suggestion that Hillary would benefit from a "racist vote," though as an observation the governor was only saying what a lot of Democratic professionals, black and white, say privately.

Identity politics have always been a razor with two edges, quick to draw blood if not skillfully handled. Voters have heretofore had short memories of the unsavory ways that Bill Clinton played identity politics on behalf of his wife's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. Now, a lot of Democrats are calling up those buried memories.

Debra Burlingame, director of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation and the sister of the pilot of the plane that was crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, recalls in the Wall Street Journal how President Clinton bestowed clemency on convicted Puerto Rican terrorists in a shameless pander to New York Hispanics in 1999. The terrorists were members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), convicted of conspiracy, sedition, extortion and possession of illegal weapons and explosives.

"Hillary was in the midst of her state-wide listening tour' in anticipation of her run for the U.S. Senate in New York, a state which included 1.3 million Hispanics," Ms. Burlingame writes. Puerto Rican politicians in New York were thrilled; the FBI and the Justice Department were horrified. President Clinton said the thugs were being punished for "guilt by association," but it was actually a case of "guilt by participation."

Bill was more than just a husband supporting his wife in her race for the Senate; he was abusing the perks of his office to pander on Hillary's behalf. He's more than just a husband now in her race for the White House, by playing identity politics with abandon. Speaking of abandon, that's what we're seeing again, only this time it's Bill and Hillary suffering the pains of abandonment.

Bubbies of the world --and the rest of us -- beware.