The Democratic party has two strong contenders for the nomination, and big primaries remain, with millions of votes yet to be cast. It is nearly unprecedented for a major candidate to be asked to pull out in such a situation, but there's a media clamor for Hillary Clinton to do just that.
In 1976, Ronald Reagan battled President Gerald Ford all the way to the convention in a bitter, no-holds-barred fight. I do not recall a hue and cry for the Gipper to stand aside. Of course, Reagan had that cowboy tough guy image (if only from the movies) and nobody expects cowboys to turn in their spurs. I don't remember anybody calling Reagan a "fratricidal maniac" (as the New Republic recently called Hillary) because he didn't bow out.
And in 1980, Ted Kennedy took his campaign against President Jimmy Carter to the convention floor. As veteran political reporter Marty Nolan notes in the Boston Globe, the situation in June after the primaries resembled today's status quo. Carter had been victorious in 24 states, Kennedy in 10. Carter was ahead in delegates, and led in the popular vote, by 2.7 million. "The challenger was not deterred," Nolan writes. "On to the convention was the Kennedy campaign's motto."
Again, I don't remember a press outcry that Kennedy was destroying the party, as Nicholas Kristof suggests (in the New York Times) that Clinton is doing. The "Nader of 2008" he calls her.
I wonder what the narrative of the mainstream media would be if Obama's and Clinton's positions were exactly reversed? Would MSNBC be saying that Obama had won the states that really counted, the big states, while Hillary had only won in the wimpy caucus states? Would pundits be arguing that true democracy required a re-vote in California and Michigan? Would bloggers be insisting that the superdelegates would be right in going for Obama, even though Clinton led in states won and in the popular vote, because the supers had an obligation to offer the strongest candidate?
While some people cringe at the slings and arrows, the fact is that tough primary battles are as American as apple pie. The guys go at it with hammer and tong and then kiss and make up, even if the kiss decidedly lacks passion. It's not impossible that McCain will choose Romney as his veep, even thought the two of them like each other about as much as Jennifer Aniston likes Angelina Jolie. Reagan picked Bush pere even though pere had called his policies "voodoo economics."
Why is it, I wonder, that the lady is being asked to step aside when the gentlemen in a similar situation rarely were? Is it possible that in our collective subconscious, ladies aren't supposed to do what cowboys do, hang tough? Research finds that women in business who use an assertive style are disliked, even if they are seen as competent. We love to see the guys duke it out, but blanch when it's a woman. (When was the last time you head a man called shrill?)
The press resorts to hyperbole, big time, about Hillary's jabs at Barack. I've seen the words "kneecapping," "knife fight," "assault," etc. Does a female candidate doing what the boys have always done dredge up subliminal dread about female power? Does Hillary become Medusa, her snake hairdo beaming out lethal rays at men?
Meanwhile, both campaigns have been getting overheated lately. I didn't like it when Samantha Power called Hillary a "monster" and when Hillary's surrogates played the race card. I didn't much like Bill Clinton being called Joe McCarthy or Bill Richardson being called Judas.
Sure, I'd like to see both campaigns dial it down a notch, but I have no trouble with candidates tossing barbs. It's legitimate for Barack to question Hillary's foreign policy expertise after that 3 a.m. ad, because that's what she presents as her strength. It's OK for Hillary to question Barack's judgment in the "pastor" uproar, because he's called judgment his strength. This is politics after all, not tiddlywinks.
Will a tough battle damage both candidates? Yes, for a while. In 1968, the Democratic party tore itself apart with an ideological bloodletting over the Vietnam War. There's no such ideological dispute going on now. If the candidates finally come together to support the eventual nominee, so too will most of their devotees.
Has all the squabbling helped John McCain? Sure, for now. But national polls seven months away from the election mean nothing. Remember when Rudy Giuliani seemed a shoo-in for the Republican nomination and Hillary was "inevitable?"
Some pundits are writing that a tough primary fight harms a nominee. I'd argue that it's the nature of the candidate that counts. Yes, Gerald Ford lost after battling Reagan, but he was an unpopular president, especially after pardoning Richard Nixon. It wasn't Teddy Kennedy who made Jimmy Carter a one-termer, but Carter himself (and, of course, the Iranian hostage crisis). "Carter lost many of the advantages of the incumbency by the campaign that he ran," notes University of Alabama professor James Glen Stovall. "Carter went after Ronald Reagan with a Harry Truman fury. The trouble was, be wasn't Harry Truman."
In contrast, Ronald Reagan was not mortally wounded by Bush senior's catchy voodoo economics line.
So let the games continue. At the end of the primaries, we will have a clear picture of who has stumbled and who has not, who has the momentum and who does not, who is the most electable.
It's messy. It's loud. It's uncomfortable -- and it's democracy.
Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety,: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England.)