Over the past few days, Democratic partisans have been showing off their thinly veiled racial and gender anxieties. Which, by the way, aren’t quite the same thing as their slightly better hidden racism and sexism. On the one hand, people are worrying that the mainstream of the nation’s electorate isn’t ready for a woman president (see: here and here). So Hillary is doomed in the general election. She’s just too damn girlie for a nation that craves another manly man at the helm. Because, you know, that’s worked out so well for us these past seven years. Based on this line of argument, the inevitable Hillary might not even get the nomination. If, that is, Democratic voters express either their good sense — weighing electability — or their latent sexism by voting for John Edwards or Barack Obama in the primaries. But wait, Obama has a problem too. It seems voters aren’t ready for a black president either. (At the same time, of course, Obama isn’t black enough to win; talk about damned if you do and damned if you don’t).
Worse even than all of this free-floating anxiety coming to rest on the pages of my favorite blogs is the reaction of the candidates. Obama seems to be getting in touch with his inner homophobe: “Look, whitey, I’m just as worried about teh gays as you are.” And Hillary has been working overtime to demonstrate her machismo by designating every Iranian this side of the Shah a terrorist.
But the really disturbing thing about all of this fretting is that it’s as likely as not misplaced. In 1959-60, the mainstream of the Democratic establishment had its own anxieties, religious in that case. Party leaders worried that a Catholic could never be elected president of the United States. But when it came to the general election, the haunting image of flopsweat dripping from Richard Nixon’s jowls proved far scarier than the threat of Kennedy kissing the Pope’s ring. It helped that Kennedy addressed the issue head on, treating the American people like adults by telling them where his loyalties really lay (with his father and Richard Daley, duh).
All of this worrying, it seems to me, is how we insure that from now we only have Protestants or crackers elected president. Or some mix of the two. Somewhere Mitt Romney just got anxious. And John Edwards started smiling.