The Mommy Party tries to get tough

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

“Sex­ual pol­i­tics” means a lot of things in Wash­ing­ton, even how men and women re­late to each other, defin­ing no­tions about fem­i­nin­ity and mas­culin­ity. For bet­ter or for worse, as in the mar­riage vows. In Wash­ing­ton “sex­ual pol­i­tics” is usu­ally more about power than sex. The Repub­li­cans are the Daddy Party, the Democrats the Mommy Party.

But the stereo­types are chang­ing right be­fore our eyes, and smart pols will take due no­tice now be­cause pub­lic ex­pec­ta­tions and psy­cho­log­i­cal per­cep­tions will shape their fu­ture. Nancy Pelosi, pretty in pearls and look­ing warm and ma­ter­nal sur­rounded by her grand­chil­dren, wants to be per­ceived as one tough mother with a gavel. Henry Kissinger said “power is an aphro­disiac,” and that’s cer­tainly true for men, but so far it hasn’t quite ap­plied to women. We ex­pect women in power to be de­fem­i­nized, if not neutered. Think Mag­gie Thatcher, Indira Gandhi (and if you’re old enough, Golda Mier). Geral­dine Fer­raro shared her recipes for blue­berry muffins and she got burned around the soft edges.

Mrs. Pelosi is helped along by what John Lapp, for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, calls “the Ma­cho Dems.” Th­ese men were re­cruited as a new breed of can­di­date, part of a strat­egy for win- ning back the Congress. “So we went to C.I.A. agents, F.B.I. agents, N.F.L. quar­ter­backs, sher­iffs, Iraq war vets,” he tells the New York Times. “Th­ese are red­blooded Amer­i­cans who are tough.”

How this will play out with the red-blooded Amer­i­can ladies who live in Gen­der Gap, so far a Demo­cratic en­clave, is not yet clear. “Ma­cho McGover­nite” is an oxy­moron, and the left wing of the party, still ad­dicted to McGover­nite nos­trums, wants to re­write Teddy Roo­sevelt’s fa­mous dic­tum to “speak softly and carry a big shtick.” The ma­cho Democrats are cul­tur­ally con­ser­va­tive, and how they clash with their lib­eral col­leagues will give us clues as to how sex­ual pol­i­tics will be played in 2008.

Hil­lary Clin­ton is the most vul­ner­a­ble of the prospec­tive pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, caught in a cross­fire be­tween the sexes, not quite sure how to con­duct the power fore­play. The granny of her Welles­ley Col­lege days has mor­phed into the fash­ion­able care­fully coiffed mid­dle-aged ma­tron, invit­ing spec­u­la­tion that a lit­tle bo­tox has helped her look buff and even a lit­tle younger. But if a changed phys­i­cal im­age serves her well, her po­lit­i­cal facelifts have not.

The unattrac­tive icons to whom she is com­pared are le­gion, and Mother Jones mag­a­zine rounds up the familiar sus­pects. They range from Lady Mac­Beth, con­stantly try­ing to rub out the “damned spot” of me­mory, to Martha Ste­wart, al­ways ea­ger to freshen up the la­bel with a lit­tle spot re­mover. When the old Hil­lary claimed that she was no Tammy Wynette, ea­ger to stand by her man, the rad­i­cal fem­i­nists who should have been her nat­u­ral con­stituency imag­ined they heard Tammy singing from Mon­ica’s thong­book.

That’s all an­cient his­tory, and the wife of the gov­er­nor of Arkansas can only hope that now that she’s a New Yorker old times down there are now forgotten. It won’t be easy. The hard­ened fem­i­nists may de­cide they can vote for the hu­mil­i­ated wife if she can be counted on to their agenda into of­fice, but this cre­ates prob­lems with vot­ers swim­ming in the main­stream. One ir­rev­er­ent critic, look­ing at an artist’s sculp­ture of her, sneered that she looked like “Jimmy Carter with boobs.”

Hil­lary’s prob­lem is that no­body can be sure who she is. Fa­mil­iar­ity in pol­i­tics is not meant to breed con­tempt, but com­fort­able ac­cep­tance. Her mis­takes — the health-care fi­asco, the Arkansas fi­nan­cial shenani­gans, her hug of Mrs. Yasser Arafat — sent her un­der­ground for a sea­son and made her lit­tle more than one of those life­size card­board cutouts. Like Mrs. Pelosi, she’s a great fundraiser, but un­like Mrs. Pelosi, who was elected and re­elected by her lib­eral con­stituency, she has no con­sis­tent per­sona ex­cept that of a wo­man who eas­ily changes her mind. We can hear some­one say­ing it now: “Isn’t that just like a wo­man?” It doesn’t mat­ter now whether she was will­ing once to stand by her man.

The vot­ers of ‘08 will want to know where she stood when her man was mak­ing cer­tain bad de­ci­sions, like, for ex­am­ple, let­ting Osama bin Laden get away when he was ripe for the pick­ing. “The hus­band of” told Is­raeli television in 2005 that in some ways his wife would make a bet­ter pres­i­dent than he did “be­cause of what we did to­gether.” The cam­paign of ‘08 may be the first to re­quire the in­tense pub­lic scru­tiny of a mar­riage. That will re­de­fine “sex­ual pol­i­tics” once more.

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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