Clift: Why Hillary Shouldn't Whine About Losing

The key to the winner winning is how the loser loses. Those cautionary words were spoken some weeks ago by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who is close to both the Clintons and Barack Obama and whose hardball style of politics helped win back the House for the Democrats. However the nomination fight is resolved, it must be seen as fair by supporters of the two candidates, who have run an excruciatingly close race.

If that's the goal, it doesn't help that a group of women plan on protesting outside the hotel Saturday where the Democratic Party's rules and bylaws committee is meeting. These women are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. But their complaint, that Hillary Clinton may be denied the nomination because she's the victim of sexism, doesn't hold water.

Sexism by whom? By the press? By Barack Obama? To be sure, there have been sexist comments. Some women are still smarting over the time when Obama pulled out Clinton's chair after a debate, seeing it as chauvinist as opposed to gentlemanly. But highlighting sexism undercuts Clinton's argument that she is the more electable of the two candidates. How can she be more electable if sexism is this strong within the Democratic primaries? What would happen in November? If she's the candidate, would hordes of men see the light?

Clinton discovered her inner feminist late in the race, when mobilizing women was one of the last cards she had left to play. Women of her generation have experienced the indignities of an oppressed minority (even though women are more than half the population), and they rallied to her cause. A classmate of Hillary's from Wellesley told me she never considered herself a feminist: "I never marched … but this campaign turned me into one." She is furious about the Hillary nutcracker, which has stainless steel thighs and is available for purchase at the newsstand at many airports.

Younger women do not feel the lash of gender the way their elders wish they would. Professor Karen O'Connor teaches a weekend course on women and politics at American University. Her course this year coincided with the primary season, and to show how a caucus works she asked Hillary supporters to assemble on one side of the room, Obama supporters on the other, with undecided students in the middle. In the class of 25 there were only three men, and O'Connor assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that the pro-Hillary forces would dominate. Three female students stood up for Hillary, 17 students backed Obama, and five were undecided.

O'Connor founded the Institute of Women and Politics at AU. As a woman over 50 who has devoted her professional life to cultivating women leaders and looking ahead to the day when she might see a woman president, she learned a hard truth: that for these women, youth trumps gender. "I don't vote for a woman just because she's a woman," a former student told O'Connor. "I do," O'Connor responded, explaining that Clinton and Obama are "identical" on the issues. "This is gender versus race." O'Connor has been quoted saying it will be generations, plural, before another woman will be positioned as the heir apparent the way Clinton was at the outset of the race.

Blaming gender bias may help some women vent about an outcome they didn't want, but there are more mundane reasons for what looks like a failed nomination fight. If Clinton had not voted for the resolution that gave President Bush the authority to wage war, the door would not have swung open for Obama to enter the race. His antiwar stance gave him a moral claim on which to stake his candidacy. Secondly, the Clinton campaign's decision to not aggressively contest the caucus states allowed Obama to build up a lead in delegates that Clinton was never able to overcome. Now Clinton supporters are arguing that caucuses are undemocratic, and if only the Democrats had the same system as the Republicans, winner-take-all in the big primary states, Hillary would be the nominee.

The sense of grievance that permeates the Clinton campaign is out of proportion to reality. Women seethe at the way Hillary's cleavage became news when a Washington Post style writer, a woman, did a feature on a lower-cut-than usual top she wore on the Senate floor. Silly and sexist, yes, but what if Bill Clinton hadn't waded into the South Carolina primary with remarks that seemed to conjoin Obama with Jesse Jackson? Would that have made a difference? Life isn't fair, but don't cry for Hillary. She's proved herself more than worthy to win; now she's got to muster the grace to lose.