The most important question to ask tonight is:
Can a woman be elected President of the United States?
I think the answer, at the end of Hillary Clinton's campaign, has to be a resounding "Yes."
No, she didn't win. No, she is not going to be the next President. But it's no longer possible to say that a woman couldn't do it. It is now undeniable that a woman can be a powerful contender for the White House, and that if a few things had gone differently (her campaign strategy; her vote on Iraq) Senator Clinton would have had the nomination.
There's no longer a question that a woman can be elected President. The only questions remaining are who, and when. That is Senator Clinton's greatest achievement, and it cannot be taken from her. Some of Hillary Clinton's personal ambitions came to an end tonight, but part of her campaign was always bigger than one politician's personal career, and that larger role on a larger stage, that place in the history of women and the history of this country, does not end tonight and will never end.
It's time to put aside the tactical posturing and small-bore politicking of the last few weeks. Clinton is a fiercely competitive and tenacious campaigner, as capable of hardball politics as any of the great American barnstormers have been, and she did not give up the field easily. But she should not be defined by the last-stand expediencies of the primary season. Least of all should her achievement be diminished by claims that the nomination was wrongly denied her, or that it was stolen. It wrongs Senator Clinton, and ill serves the women who will come after her, to imagine her not as the pioneer, the power broker, the master politician that she has become but instead as a victim.
The perverse triumph of Senator Clinton's campaign is that she lost, by and large, for the reasons other politicians lose. She was tied to an important vote that became a political disadvantage as circumstances changed; that vote alienated a serious chunk of the party base, who energetically supported her main rival; she faced an unusually gifted opponent in Barack Obama, backed by anti-war elements in the party; and her campaign strategy initially underestimated that opponent, leaving her with no contingency plan for the string of contests following Super Tuesday (when she expected to clinch the nomination herself).
There was sexism, as there always is when a woman opens doors that have been marked "Gentlemen Only," but Clinton proved far too serious and too powerful to be dismissed with any sexist labeling. There was never a question that she was qualified, and never a way to doubt her qualification for the job without exposing oneself as a fool. It's a mark how far she and we have come that she began this contest the prohibitive front-runner, rather than the long-shot, and part of Clinton's achievement that she could lose like a front runner, like any other established party chief in a political season running against the establishment. Clinton never had to prove that she could compete with the men; they has to establish their bona fides to stay in the race against her. She faced sexism, as every female candidate must, but she largely beat it. She lost instead to a combination of a powerful anti-war movement and Barack Obama. There's no shame in that.
Don't tell your daughters that the nomination was taken from Hillary Clinton. Don't tell them that the door to the Oval Office will always be closed, that no matter how well they do they will never get a fair accounting. Don't tell them that even the best candidate, with the best message and best campaign, will always be cheated by sexism, that a woman's best will never be good enough, or that even great women end up as victims. Tell them the truth: that there is a chance for them no matter what they do, that sexism will always have to be confronted and defeated but that it can be, and that while they will have to work harder and fight longer that in the end they will have the chance both to fail and to succeed, to take upon themselves the responsibility for their own defeats and their victories. Do Senator Clinton justice as a woman who made her own decisions, as a historic figure who held much of her political destiny in her own hands.
Tell your daughters that Hillary Clinton ran a great campaign, but not a perfect campaign. Tell them that she was a great woman, but not the last great woman. There was a better campaign to run, and there will be another woman, on another day, to run it.