Hillary Clinton’s liberated campaign
You know something has changed in the state of gender and politics when the Democratic frontrunner jokingly alludes to the, er, plumbing differences that necessitated a longer-than-planned mid-debate bathroom break.
“It does take me a little longer,” Hillary Clinton told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
This is not your Clinton 2008 campaign.
Then, Clinton was more skittish about playing up her gender. Not that she didn’t mention it — she did. Still, it was an at times awkward and muted embrace, undergirded by the campaign’s conviction that, although the country was ready to elect a woman, voters also needed to be convinced of her toughness.
“Most voters in essence see the president as the ‘father’ of the country. They do not want someone who would be the first mama, especially in this kind of world,” Clinton pollster Mark Penn advised in a 2006 internal memo. Penn, who thought that Clinton as first woman president was a selling point, believed the role model should be Margaret Thatcher — projecting smart and strong, not warm and funny.
Even in 2008, the “ready for a female president” question felt antiquated, a fusty reflex. Yet the years since then have brought social change that further eases the path to a woman in the Oval Office. Voter shave absorbed—or-not—another first in the form of President Obama. And Clinton armed herself with new national security credentials in her four years as secretary of state.
“The problems for women candidates is they have to show they have the standing and gravitas to fight with the big boys in Washington, but they also have to be a human being,” said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. “Hillary doesn’t have to prove the stature stuff anymore and so that liberates her.”
Liberated she is — stylistically and substantively. Issues of pay equity and work-family balance that were notably — some advisers think mistakenly — subdued in the 2008 campaign are at the center of her platform today. Fusing the third rails of gender and age, she burbles about being a grandmother; she is unabashed in talking about coloring her hair.
The 2016 Clinton campaign has no doubt that gender benefits Clinton. The single-digit slice of voters who say they would not elect a woman are not Clinton supporters in any event, in the campaign’s view, and are outweighed by the facts that women voters make up more than a majority of the electorate and tend to vote more heavily Democratic.
Thus, Clinton Unbound was on full display during last week’s debate. The coda of her opening statement was a reference to what would be the historic nature of her election: “Yes, finally fathers will be able to say to their daughters, you, too, can grow up to be president.” Twice when confronted with tough questions, Clinton deflected by invoking her gender.
“Well, I think that’s pretty obvious,” she said when asked how her presidency would differ from a third Obama term. “I think being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents we’ve had up until this point, including President Obama.”
Clinton engaged in a similar diversion on why Democrats, in the year of the outsider, should embrace the ultimate insider: “Well, I can’t think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president” — although she went on to say that was not the rationale for her run.
There is an obvious risk here — that if Clinton underplayed her gender hand in 2008, she might overplay it this round. One Democratic strategist described being astonished at two focus groups of white, college-educated women who repeatedly offered “liar” as a Clinton description and rejected the notion that having the first woman president was a big deal.
“She’s got to earn their trust a little more before they let that be something that matters to them,” this strategist said. “She’s not a cause for women — yet . . . I wouldn’t say they felt betrayed but they were angry at her. It didn’t feel like they were ready to forgive or let her into the sorority yet.”
Expect to hear more Clinton as sorority sister — a pitch aimed not only to women but also to the fathers of those daughters. Expect, too, to hear more misogyny, although probably not quite as overt as the rapper T.I., who said last week, “Not to be sexist, but I can’t vote for the leader of the free world to be a woman” because “women make rash decisions emotionally.”
T.I., not to be rude, but next time, think about your daughter, would you?
Clarification: In a recent column, I wrote that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) backs the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Ryan’s office says he has been “very supportive of the goal of getting a TPP deal” but has not taken a position on the final agreement.