Obama, Clinton show how far we've come

Unless something crazy happens in the next month, either a woman or an African-American will be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee this year -- and quite possibly the next commander in chief.

It's not particularly surprising that the Democrats have front-running candidates who are female or black, considering the party's demographic diversity. But it's genuinely interesting that Democratic voters -- and a fair number of independent and Republican voters as well -- seem quite comfortable with these choices. Few if any people are freaking out over it.

We've come a long way. When Democratic candidate Barack Obama says, "At this moment, in this election, there is something happening in America," I think this is partly what he's talking about.

Consider my experience of just 20 years ago. As a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, I attended a Democratic Party presidential caucus near the campus. I stood up for the Rev. Jesse Jackson at that meeting, and I recall that Jackson garnered strong support in our mostly white neighborhood, if not in most other parts of Nevada.

But many Jackson supporters in 1988 knew the score. We supported Jackson in the caucus because we most closely identified with his views on domestic issues, but we knew he would not win. It was akin to the folks who voted quixotically for Ralph Nader in 2000.

Jackson is a different personality with a different background than Obama. It's not hard to argue that Obama is a more palatable candidate to a wider spectrum of the voting public. Obama won the Democratic caucus in Iowa, which is about as white as a state can get, and he placed a close second in New Hampshire, which isn't exactly a bastion of racial diversity.

Looking back, it's almost impossible to imagine what a Jesse Jackson White House would have looked like. Man, would that have been a circus! By contrast, few people today seem incredulous at the prospect of an Obama administration.

Still, even Obama would have faced steep hurdles to political success in 1988. Things have changed.

Pundits call Obama the youth candidate, a "rock star" who is energizing millions of young adults to get involved in politics. This is true. But Obama isn't just the youth candidate. He's drawing support from people of all ages and political stripes.

An example: I recently spoke with a 63-year-old Southern Nevadan who voted twice for Richard Nixon, twice for Ronald Reagan and three times for a Bush. This lifelong Republican says this year he's voting for Obama.

Obama has been able to do something that Jackson could not: transcend race. A larger number of people than ever before is comfortable with the idea of an African-American leading the country.

Hillary Clinton is an equally transcendent figure. Women have made major political strides in recent decades, but the White House has remained almost unthinkable. Until now.

Clinton has managed to secure a position among the Democrats as the candidate capable of stepping right in and taking charge. While some say Obama is too young and inexperienced, Clinton is regularly described as a hardened political veteran.

This certainly is a new perspective. Clinton will have a pesky chorus of critics till her dying days, but in the meantime a significant portion of the population has come around to the idea that she is qualified and capable of running the country.

Forget for a moment about the TV pundits and their hourly guessing games about polls and momentum shifts. The New Hampshire primary result revealed once again that most of the insta-polling and analysis is a waste of our time.

If you squelch all that noise and take in the big picture, you'll see that this campaign is -- no matter who wins in November -- historic. We are squeezing through a portal to a new era in which women and African-Americans have the very real potential to be president.

That said, let's not go overboard. Race and gender discrimination are alive and well in America. Certain people won't vote for Obama or Clinton no matter how qualified they are. As Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page wisely noted last week, "Racial issues and contradictions are too deeply woven into the fabric of American life for us to move beyond it with the casting of a single ballot."

But even Page acknowledges the Obama mantra that "there is something happening in America." We aren't yet color blind -- and may never be. We're not yet gender blind -- and may never be. But rather than automatically dismissing black and female candidates, more of us than ever before are evaluating them on their experience, character and political positions.

We're making history. It's a big deal. And this Saturday, Nevada Democrats have an opportunity to participate in this historic movement during the party caucus. Most will stand up for either Clinton or Obama -- and it won't be a quixotic act.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming Feb. 5, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.