Jodi Kantor writes in today’s New York Times:

Along with the usual post-mortems about strategy, message and money, [and, I’d add, the dishing/blame-dodging on all of the above by Clinton staffers offered anonymity in The New Republic ] Mrs. Clinton’s all-but-certain defeat brings with it a reckoning about what her run represents for women: a historic if incomplete triumph or a depressing reminder of why few pursue high office in the first place.

(Goodness knows it couldn’t be some of both. More on that later).

Yesterday, the Times itself produced two contributions to such a “reckoning.” In a magazine column headlined “The Hillary Lesson,” Peggy Orenstein “wondered:” “Will the senator be my example of how far we’ve come as women or how far we have to go? Is she proof to my [4-year-old] daughter that ‘you can do anything’ or of the hell that will rain down on you if you try?”

And, moreover, who might be the next to “try?” Which is the question Kate Zernike pondered in yesterday’s Week in Review. Zernike talked to mostly unnamed “political strategists, talent scouts, politicians and those who study women in politics” and reports that there is no Woman Waiting in the Wings—but Hillary herself. (Or, “Asked to name a potential first woman as president, though, even the shrewdest political strategists said they couldn’t think of anyone. Most people disqualified their prospects as soon as they identified them.”)

So Zernike’s sources collectively painted a “composite of Madam President” “based as much on the lessons of the Clinton candidacy as on the enduring truths of politics and the number and variety of women who dot the leadership landscape.” Here is what this Ghost of White Houses Future looks like:

Almost unanimously, the experts say that a successful contender will come from a younger generation than Mrs. Clinton — promising, as Mr. Obama has, to move to a post-boomer era, beyond the old identity politics.


Most people assume that the burden will fall on women to prove toughness — of a certain kind.


Likewise, a woman who runs for president will have to be married with children, which to voters signifies middle America…But while it’s an asset for men to have young children — so Jack Kennedy! — a woman with the same tends to make voters wonder who will take care of them.

There’s Woman’s Winning Formula: young(ish)—but not with young children—and tough(ish). (Also it helps to “come from a political family” and to be from the West — “evokes a frontier image” — or the South which “tends to produce women who are tough but charming.”)

There will be no shortage of these Candidate Clinton: What Can Be Learned? articles. I’d argue that there is no single Hillary Lesson (and to search for but one is more media gimmickry than a real effort to wrestle with the complex question of what might be learned from this year’s election cycle thus far.) And to frame the “reckoning” as a simplistic “either/or” proposition (Hillary Clinton ‘08 is either an “example of how far we’ve come as women or [of] how far we have to go;” either “a historic if incomplete triumph or a depressing reminder of why few pursue high office in the first place”) is equally unhelpful. Perhaps it is both (and more!). Maybe it’s somewhere in the murky middle. The answer will always depend on who is asked (eye of the beholder).

Speaking of this “eye of the beholder” dynamic, there was this emphatic declaration in Kantor’s Times article:

Janet Napolitano, the Democratic governor of Arizona, said the world was different now, especially the political world, thanks in part to Mrs. Clinton. “I never heard anybody say she can’t be elected because she’s a woman,” said Ms. Napolitano, who supports Mr. Obama and like many of his supporters saw less sexism in the race than Mrs. Clinton’s backers. “That’s a different deal than we’ve heard before in American politics.”

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.