It's not about race or gender, we keep hearing from the Democratic front-runners. Except, of course, it is about race and gender, even though both should be rendered irrelevant by virtue of the candidates' participation in the game.
Simply put: Identity politics is predicated on oppression. Yet it's hard to claim you're a victim when you're on top. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton - Ivy League-educated U.S. senators - can't win for winning. Yet both have crafted their candidacies around the idea of overcoming historical obstacles and becoming firsts of their kind.
To cross that final frontier, each has to artfully tear down something of what their party has built up. Unavoidably, the white has to go after the black; the man has to attack the woman. How to do that without inviting charges of sexism or racism is the trick, and thus far, Mr. Obama seems the better magician.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that Mr. Obama's attraction to black voters cuts a swath through a field the Clintons have been carefully cultivating for decades. No matter how many black church services they've attended, they can't compete on the pulpit with a real African-American candidate.
Despite their protests to the contrary, both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have been playing to their respective demographics. Mr. Obama hasn't overtly made his campaign about race, but he didn't have to. In Clintonian tradition, he has let surrogates make the case for him. Oprah Winfrey laid it out plainly enough when she told a throng in Columbia, S.C.: "We don't have to just dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream into reality."
For her part, Mrs. Clinton has insisted that women shouldn't vote for her just because of gender. Except when she is urging women to vote for her because she's a woman. Speaking at her all-female alma mater, Wellesley College, Mrs. Clinton called upon women to rally against "the all-boys club of presidential politics. We're ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling."
Obviously, and gratefully, Mrs. Clinton will accept the female vote and Mr. Obama will accept the black vote while professing a unified, color- and gender-blind vision. But to win, each has to borrow from the other's camp.
And each risks losing the prize by going too negative, as Mrs. Clinton recently learned when she dared trespass on the sacred territory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., noting that no matter Dr. King's own contributions, the Civil Rights Act required the signature of a president, in this case Lyndon B. Johnson.
Whatever she meant - fair or not - that's a hole deep enough to bury her nomination and her husband's legacy.
We can be certain that Mr. Obama's surrogates will milk that mistake even as he and Mrs. Clinton declare a public truce. And Mrs. Clinton will continue to insist that she's not interested in defining her campaign as a gender issue even as she continues to invoke the glass ceiling.
In the end, the Democratic Party may be hostage to its own noble intentions. By co-opting equality as the party's identity and making victimhood its rallying cry, the battle for race and gender necessarily has become a fight between race and gender.
If a Clinton victory is viewed as a victory for all women, her defeat can only be viewed as a defeat for women.
The same goes for Mr. Obama and African-Americans.
It shouldn't be about race and gender, but it is. And the Democratic Party made it this way.
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.