History, Not Her Story, in Denver

Clintonites Try to Get Over It

Posted August 25, 2008 at 7:40pm

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

From the instant Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) jumped into the presidential race last year, she was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and thousands of Democratic female activists expected to make history by nominating a woman.

Denver 2008 is still profoundly historic, given the party will be nominating the first African-American for president. The moment that happens Thursday night, however, is sure to be bittersweet for many of the party’s female delegates and leaders. Instead of a Clinton coronation, they will have to settle for her prime-time speech tonight, along with the convention’s focus today on women’s issues.

“With some women, there’s kind of been some mixed feelings” about the convention, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who noted that she has been meeting with groups of female Clinton supporters over the past few months to help consolidate support for presumptive nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

For those women, Stabenow said, “it’s more the loss of the dream” of having a female president than a lack of enthusiasm for Obama, who narrowly beat Clinton in this year’s long-drawn-out primaries.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of Clinton’s strongest Senate supporters, said many of Clinton’s female supporters will arrive in Denver still hurting from the bruising primary.

“It’s hard to come off of the hurt and the sense of rejection, and you know, sort of some anger. It takes a little bit of time. Hillary understands that,” she said.

Despite the disappointment of many female activists, this year’s convention will mirror past conventions with a panoply of events honoring women’s achievements, women’s equality and female leaders in the Democratic Party. Many of them are taking place today, which happens to be “Women’s Equality Day.”

One highlighted event will feature Clinton, would-be first lady Michelle Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the first woman to hold that powerful post.

“It’s the unity event,” said EMILY’s List President Ellen Malcolm, whose group is hosting the gala. “I think people are very excited to see Hillary and Michelle and Nancy together.”

Malcolm acknowledged that as the leader of an organization dedicated to electing Democratic women, she was one of the most disappointed by Clinton’s primary loss. Still, she said women’s events at this year’s convention are designed to both celebrate Clinton’s historic achievements as well as solidify support for Obama.

“I can still be disappointed and also determined to elect Barack Obama,” Malcolm said. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”

In Denver, Clinton talked to New York delegates Monday about the bruised feelings.

“Let there be no mistake. We are united,” she said. “It may take a while. We’re not the fall-in-line party.”

To prod her supporters to transition from the primary to the general election campaign, Clinton is expected to meet Wednesday with her pledged delegates and release them to vote for Obama. She will also reiterate her intent to cast her delegate vote for Obama when the roll call is conducted, likely early Wednesday night, sources said.

Clinton wasn’t the only one Monday attempting to tamp down speculation that her supporters were not united behind Obama. A visibly frustrated Pelosi admonished reporters for asking too many questions about party disunity.

“This is like a yesterday room,” Pelosi said. “The nomination is decided. We have a vice president. We will work together to go forward. Every convention has its areas of disagreement. To stay wallowing in all of this is not productive.”

Former Clinton supporter Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said the important focus for women at the convention will be “to celebrate the fact that the Democratic Party stands for issues that matter to women.”

She added, “The convention is not going to be a time for looking back or disappointment. It’s going to be a time for unity. We didn’t get all the way there, but it’ll be a celebration of how far we’ve come.”

Wasserman Schultz and Feinstein said Clinton’s prime-time speaking gig tonight is an important symbol for party unity as well.

“That’s a tremendous signal of the respect for Hillary Clinton,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Added Feinstein: “It will be an opportunity for her supporters to demonstrate and kind of get it off their chests, and that’s good.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Clinton’s name will be placed in nomination as part of a symbolic roll-call vote — a controversial decision that many said was necessary to mark the historic nature of her candidacy and how close she came to winning the nomination. Opponents said it would continue to highlight the rift between the two camps.

Feinstein, who chaired the party’s Rules Committee in 1980 when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) challenged President Jimmy Carter at the convention, said the potential for an irreparable clash between Obama and Clinton supporters should be avoided.

“I saw the hard feelings, and they never healed, and I don’t want that to happen,” she said. “I think Obama has to do some of [the healing] himself, and I think that will come in the course of the campaign, but you can’t do that overnight.”

It’s not just female party activists that Obama has to worry about, however. A July 17 Pew Research study noted that while Obama continues to perform well among politically independent and younger female voters, older women who supported Clinton — and who are more apt to vote than their younger counterparts — are not yet ready to throw their support behind Obama. Although Obama has a 69 percent to 12 percent advantage over McCain among Democratic women older than 50, Pew found that 19 percent remain undecided or plan on voting for another candidate.

Despite the absence of a woman on the Democratic ticket, the convention will highlight the achievements of Pelosi and other female Members of Congress. Tonight, eight of the 11 Democratic female Senators will present their “Checklist for Change” to the convention while being honored with a video presentation.

“We put it together because the Democratic women in the Senate wanted to come together — women who were for Barack, women who were for Hillary — and show that we are unified and that this is about the agenda and not one person or candidate,” Stabenow said.

The checklist includes policy proposals for encouraging job creation, strengthening national security, ensuring pay equity for women and making health care more affordable. Two female Senate candidates this cycle, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, will also be prominent at the convention this week.

Wednesday night, female House Members will be honored in a similar fashion, according to Obama campaign spokeswoman Jenny Backus.

“The party has so many strong women, you can’t honor them all in one day,” Backus said. She said today’s focus on the economy and women would “use American women to tell the story of how the failed economy is really hurting people. … American women are feeling the brunt of the economic downturn.”

Democratic Party rules already require gender balance and diversity, Wasserman Schultz said. And Democrats have good reason to spotlight their efforts on behalf of women’s rights, considering that polling since the 1980s has routinely showed female voters lean more toward the Democratic Party than the GOP.

But it’s facts such as those that may end up deepening women’s sense of loss, even as they put on a brave face to attend today’s Democratic Women’s Caucus breakfast and rally, as well as events like the EMILY’s List gala.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that while he believes the party is already coming together as one, the feeling of disappointment among female voters is understandable, given the stake many of them had in the outcome of this year’s presidential campaign.

“I do think there’s a real sense of an opportunity missed among a lot of women who were really excited, and rightfully so, about the first woman candidate,” said Hoyer, who was neutral during the primary. “That’s taken some time, just as I think had Clinton won, African-Americans would have that same sense of missed opportunity and disappointment.”

But Hoyer was quick to note that as the wounds heal, Democratic women understand the differences between Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), at a time when the future of the Supreme Court hangs in the balance. He said he “doesn’t think anybody in the Clinton campaign” would want the Supreme Court to shift further to the right.

That’s a theme echoed by most Democratic women, who said the general election matchup trumps the discontent that many activists feel.

“I think this is going to be a more difficult [general election] race than a lot of people may want to believe at this point in time,” Feinstein said. “And I just want to see a united party. It’s incredibly important.”

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.