Does Clinton Camp Talk of Sexism Risk the Democrats' Future?

This is how the Clintons could pull the Democratic Party down to general election defeat alongside their fading presidential hopes: a pointless fight over gender politics.

That's the thought I had watching Geraldine Ferraro on the Today Show Tuesday morning press a point echoed by both Bill and Hillary Clinton in different venues over the last few days: that Clinton's increasingly apparent loss in her quest to be the Democratic nominee has occurred because of her gender.

It's a notion that not even Air America host Rachel Maddow was willing to concede Tuesday morning on Today, noting that one example cited by Ferraro of Obama's supposed misogyny -- acting as if he was flicking off criticism from Clinton during a campaign rally -- actually a reference to a Jay-Z video that delighted his young audience.

Certainly, Clinton faced hurdles as a female candidate, particularly among some of the punditocracy, which seemed to struggle for words to describe her and Obama that didn't echo insulting stereotypes. But it has always been difficult to separate the different reactions to Clinton; are people reacting to Clinton's current policies, reacting to Clinton's history with her husband, reacting to her gender or reacting to her campaign tactics? It seems insulting to suggest that every person who didn't vote for her or criticized her did so because they don't like women in power.

That's not to say that Clinton shouldn't talk about gender and the role it has played in the election. But Obama has provided a potent example for dealing with these issues; while he has often acknowledged that race plays a role in voters' choices, he rarely if ever concedes it is the sole factor in their decision making process.

The Washington Post's Shankar Vedantam has done some interesting work on Obama, the election and race, citing academics who believe that his problems with Rev. Wright stem from the way the preacher's fiery rhetoric resonates with stereotypes of the Angry Black Man. During a conference at Columbia University, Vedantam talked about how some anti-Obama voters may even be unconciously reacting to race in their choice -- and I have no doubt Clinton has faced that as a woman.

But Clinton has to be careful and specific; anything else sounds like sour grapes. Indeed, Ferraro's examples of how sexism may have limited Clinton sounded more like objections to any criticism of her at all. And now that Clinton's hopes of winning the nomination are more distant than ever, this talk seems less about helping her campaign and more about hardening the attitudes of her supporters against Obama.

More than one pundit has said the success of the Democratic nominee will be determined by the way the loser loses. Talk which encourages the loser's supporters to hold a grudge helps no one but the Republicans, who are hoping the record turnout for Democrats is diminished in the general election by ongoing discord over the primary results.

Already, Clinton can blame her campaign for tarnishing her family's legacy of connection to America's black voters. Will she also risk taking blame for sinking the general election by losing badly?