The Change Game

Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, by Ari Berman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages, $26.00

Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, by Rebecca Traister, Free Press, 352 pages, $26.00

The urge to romanticize the 2008 presidential election is almost overpowering for progressives. Although the Democratic primaries were grueling, they seemed to validate the diversity of the party's coalition. Flooding the streets on election night, progressives could ecstatically celebrate America's achievement -- and their own -- in electing the first African American president.

Now, just in time for Democrats' likely midterm drubbing, two new books by liberal journalists have arrived to indulge the impulse to relive the presidential election and perhaps even learn something from it. Rebecca Traister and Ari Berman both covered the 2008 campaign and have spent the past two years putting it in context. Ultimately, their books remind us that as compelling as the election may have been, it has yielded little fundamental rethinking of American institutions.

Traister's entertaining Big Girls Don't Cry is billed as the first history of the epic 2008 race through the lens of gender -- from Hillary Clinton's "cackle" and "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling to Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impersonation and Bristol Palin's pregnancy. The book, though, is far more than a retelling of this already familiar tale. It's a first-rate account of contemporary political warfare from an "intersectional" perspective -- one that regards racial, sexual, and class bias as equally pernicious. Most usefully, Traister's work acts as a counterweight to reductive arguments accusing young women of being bad feminists for supporting Obama (I'm looking at you, Anne Kornblut) and older feminists of being out of touch for standing by Hillary (Hi, Markos Moulitsas!).

Traister, who writes on women's issues and politics for the online magazine Salon, set out to cover the presidential race in late 2007 during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. At first she sympathized with John Edwards because of his progressive domestic policies, but after his departure from the race, she shifted to Clinton out of an intense desire to back the first woman with a real shot at the presidency. But Traister is self-aware enough not to presume that all other right-thinking Democrats, or even Democratic feminists, should have come to the same conclusion.

Though she "understood the pull of Obamamania," Traister writes, she could not ignore one inescapable fact: "Hillary Clinton was a woman, and so was I. ... I couldn't pretend that it didn't mean something to me, something more important than I'd realized. ... Oddly this realization didn't galvanize me as much as it gave me pause. However much I protested that I would never vote for someone just because she was a woman, I was realizing that a vote for Hillary would be an emotional decision as well as an intellectual and political one. And if that were true, then I would be conforming to every dismissive assumption about why and how women vote, fulfilling a feminized and thus devalued expectation of Democratic womanhood."

Big Girls Don't Cry, which devotes far more time to the bruising Democratic primaries than to the general election, is an often emotionally wrenching discussion of the divisions that the primaries brought out so clearly. Ultimately, Traister insists there is no cohesive Democratic or liberal approach to race or gender. The idea of a feminist movement united behind a single candidate is a fantasy, a denial -- often by older, whiter women -- of the diverse identities and priorities of women committed to social justice.

Traister's take on the election reflects her generational perspective. In her mid-30s, she identifies as neither a second waver nor a member of the younger clique of Gen-Y feminists who came to prominence as bloggers. A former reporter at The New York Observer and at Tina Brown's short-lived Talk magazine, Traister is particularly adept at tracing how women's changed role in the media affected the 2008 race. Katie Couric's incisive sit-down interview with Sarah Palin on CBS showed many people that the Alaska governor was unprepared for higher office. Women in anchor seats on cable news -- Rachel Maddow of MSNBC and Campbell Brown of CNN -- provided thoughtful, gender-aware counterarguments to Fox's blowhards and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who called the notion of media sexism against Clinton "hype" and "nonsense," even as Chris Matthews, on the same network, was referring to Clinton as "witchy," a "she devil," and "a sort of Madame Defarge of the left."

Meanwhile, on Saturday Night Live, comedian Tina Fey's uncanny impersonation of Palin and Fey's sketches with Amy Poehler playing Clinton ("I scratched and clawed through mud and barbed wire. And you just glided in on a dogsled wearing your pageant sash and your Tina Fey glasses!"), perfectly distilled the gender narrative of the election -- an accomplished female competitor displaced by a woman who had benefited from feminism's gains but boasted a reactionary record on women's issues, from abortion (opposed, even in cases of rape and incest) to equal pay for women (against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act).

Although Traister gets the cultural story right, the subtitle of her book, The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, is too big a jump. As she acknowledges, the health-care reform legislation championed by Obama will curtail access to affordable abortion. The jury is still out on the administration's cautious approach to other feminist priorities such as expanding access to contraception, repealing the policy of "don't ask, don't tell" toward gays in the military, and better protecting women in the armed forces against sexual abuse.

Berman's Herding Donkeys helps explain why passing progressive policies is so hard even with Democrats in control of Congress and the presidency. At first glance, Berman, a Nation reporter in his late 20s, may seem like one of the "Obama boys" who so irritated Traister during 2008. He never acknowledges the depth of feminist fervor for Hillary Clinton and calls the chapter of his book devoted to the 2008 Democratic primary "Clintonism Versus Change." Arguing that Howard Dean's "people powered" 2004 presidential campaign paved the way for Obama's efforts, Berman even waxes, "In the wake of John the Baptist, Jesus came forth."

But the book nonetheless provides a telling look at the grassroots organizing base of the Democratic Party -- the finely tuned manner in which the Obama campaign took advantage of Dean's "50-state strategy" to win a hotly contested primary and general election but then, once in office, mostly turned its back on the idea of a bottom-up governing strategy.

Why? As Berman demonstrates with extensive on-the-road reporting from the nation's swing states, the coalition that carried Obama to victory came together mainly because Americans were frustrated with George W. Bush and attracted to Obama's rhetoric, not because they shared a commitment to specific progressive policies. At one summer 2007 training session for Obama canvassers in San Francisco, the volunteers admitted that policy had little to do with their devotion to their candidate. Obama's personal story and his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech had affected them emotionally. "It's not philosophy, it's not statistics, it's lived experience," counseled Marshall Ganz, a civil-rights and labor-movement veteran, urging the organizers to approach politics through storytelling, not ideology.

The problem, of course, is that once Obama was in office, there was no groundswell of public support in favor of his more ambitious (and to date, unfulfilled) policy goals, whether a public health-insurance option or closing the American prison at Guantanamo. Berman concedes that there were also unintended consequences to the 50-state strategy Dean followed as chair of the Democratic National Committee, which called for investing in conservative as well as liberal areas. Progressive activists worked hard to send North Carolina Democrat Heath Shuler to Congress, only to watch him oppose the health-reform bill and stem-cell research and curry favor with the anti-immigrant right. Dean played a crucial role as a proto-architect of the 2008 victory, but his legacy remains uncertain. Maybe Democrats would be better off with a smaller, more ideologically coherent caucus, Dean himself mused to Berman, contradicting somewhat the premise of his experiment in nationwide organizing.

To learn how to apply the 50-state strategy to building not just a larger but a more progressive Democratic Party, Berman turns to Texas, where a burgeoning Hispanic population in the Dallas area is changing the state's political landscape, electing an openly lesbian Hispanic, Lupe Valdez, as sheriff and sending the promising young Rafael Anchia, known as the "Hispanic Obama," to the state Legislature. Berman's reporting suggests that immigration reform -- including a path to citizenship for the undocumented population in the United States -- should be considered one of the most urgent political priorities of national Democrats. The Hispanic population is progressive not only on immigration issues but also on labor rights, economic justice, and health care.

While a scoop-rich tome like John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Game Change can tell us a lot about how campaigns are won and lost from the top down, Berman's more thoughtful book is equally good fun in telling the story of the election from the bottom up. Perhaps that perspective helps explain why it has been so difficult for Obama to realize his promise. His election showed how much the country has changed. His governing has shown how much it hasn't.

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