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Geraldine Ferraro, as some may recall, was Walter Mondale's running mate in the presidential election of 1984. Adding Ms. Ferraro to the Democratic ticket obviously didn't help the wreck of Mr. Mondale's campaign, nor was there any stringent reason why it should have.

That she was a woman was no reason to collect votes or to lose them. A recent column by Christopher Hitchens, The Perils of Identity Politics, makes the same point more impishly: "I recall thinking, when Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman on a major-party ticket in 1984, that she would also, if elected, be the first vowel-ending Veep." So-called "identity politics" has many whistles, and some are more foolish than others.

In the Democratic Party, identity politics is in full tide, not relegated to the gestural significance of the vice-presidential slot 25 years ago.

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If Hillary Clinton wins, so goes identity thinking, it will be the final triumph for all women: There is no glass ceiling over the Oval Office. That's where all the glass ceilings stop. If Barack Obama wins, many will regard it as the most significant advance for "Black America" since the Civil Rights Act, the final instalment of the dream that began with Lincoln and was reinvigorated by Martin Luther King Jr.

The Democratic contest is every progressive's dream, a chance to cast a vote to elect a president and to associate with an historical moment in the obliteration of racial or gender barriers. The only pall on the moment is, of course, that it cannot be both at once. If Hillary wins, Obama loses and vice versa. To any who have been following the roller-coaster drama of the Democratic nomination so far, it is extremely clear that neither Hillary nor Obama have the slightest inclination to defer to the other on the question of which would be better in 2008 - for a black man, or for a woman, to be the first of their group in the office of the President of the United States.

Gender has collided with race, and neither is saying "Sorry, after you."

In the great scramble that followed Mr. Obama's surprising victory over Ms. Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, no less a figure than one of the founding mothers of feminism, Gloria Steinem, seared the op-ed page of The New York Times with the cry that "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House." In a curiously forgetful column titled Women Can Never be Front-Runners (curious because Ms. Clinton had been the front-runner from the moment of her announcement as a candidate until the Iowa caucuses) Ms. Steinem asserted that, in supporting Ms. Clinton, she was "not advocating a competition for who has it toughest," meaning women or blacks. She then proceeded, with energetic inconsistency, to advocate very precisely that women indeed had it tougher, that gender was the great sin of the republic, even going so far as to - in my view, tastelessly - point out "Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot."

Ms. Clinton's campaign, once awake to the fact that Mr. Obama was real competition, sought to undermine him, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. Her surrogates have brought up Mr. Obama's self-declared cocaine use, others have speculated on what Republicans might do against someone with this background, and Ms. Clinton has ostentatiously pointed out that she is the only candidate for the nomination to have been "vetted" already.

All of these are signals that Mr. Obama is not ready, and carry, for some, the nasty implication that a black man therefore is not ready.

The candidate herself made a clumsy, implied, analogy of her and Mr. Obama as being, respectively, parallel with Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. It was Ms. Clinton's contention that it was only Johnson's "actions" that fulfilled Mr. King's fine speeches. Not surprisingly, this struck several tender nerves on the other side and Obama forces returned fire.

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From both campaigns is the unmistakable message that to vote for other than the group to which you "belong" - to step outside "your" gender or race - is disloyal, or a betrayal. That, surely, was Ms. Steinem's silly implication. Though I think, to be fair, it is the Clinton machine that has been more activist in streaming the divisive messages and, not surprisingly, more guileful in its packaging of them.

A useful consequence of all this might be the realization that gender and race, as such, are bankrupt modes of thinking and politics. And that all that need be said on both was said by a man whose name has been, with some tawdriness, invoked too often in this campaign: Martin Luther King.

His message was as clear and true in 1963 as it could be, and has equal force now as the day he gave it. It's time we judge people, only, on the "content of their character." Race and gender are exploded categories.

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