[7 April 2008]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
In a recent Hillary Clinton fundraising video, the cameras purposely zoom in on the faces of enraptured female supporters. They pan to signs in the crowd: “Pennsylvania Women for Hillary,” “Our Mamas for the Mama” and “The Butler Girls (heart) Hillary.” The spot focuses almost entirely on women.
“She is a symbol for the females,” one Pennsylvania woman says into the camera. “I’m 60 years old, and I want her to win.”
From the beginning of her historic run for the White House, Clinton has worn with pride the mantle of the first viable female presidential candidate, citing how women who were born before they had the right to vote routinely send her letters of encouragement and envelopes of money. During the earliest days of her campaign, she talked about breaking “America’s highest glass ceiling.”
Yet the Clinton campaign also has had to tread carefully on the topic of gender to avoid alienating male voters who may still struggle with envisioning a female commander in chief, as well as some as well as some female voters who, many analysts believe, worry that Clinton is too polarizing a figure to successfully represent their gender.
But the Pennsylvania Internet video - along with get-out-the-vote rallies aimed directly at women and a slew of recent comments on sexism from Clinton’s surrogates and recent events that have highlighted the intersection of gender and politics in the campaign - is evidence that Clinton’s focus on her role as a female candidate is becoming more overt than ever.
Some analysts suggest that as her chances of winning the nomination grow slimmer, the Clinton campaign has little to lose and will increasingly focus on gender as a way to motivate her base and increase campaign contributions as well as to explain how unfairly they believe she is being treated by the news media and the Democratic Party.
Former President Bill Clinton told a crowd in North Carolina, “Apparently it’s OK to say bad things about a girl.” Madeleine Kunin, the former governor of Vermont and a Clinton supporter, fumed over recent calls for the candidate to quit the race, saying, “It seems a bit patronizing to say, `Honey, you’ve got to drop out for the good of the party.’”
A Clinton campaign strategist said the New York senator had previously not made regular appeals from the stump involving gender, although she would sometimes frame the issue in talking about “how historic this election is for the party and the country.”
But her campaign now is appealing more directly to women, particularly in light of what the campaign says are the negative reactions of females to calls from some Democrats, including those aligned with rival Sen. Barack Obama, for Clinton to exit the race, said the adviser, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly on strategy.
“We hear from a lot of women who are upset by the call from Obama supporters for Hillary to quit,” the adviser said. “We are appealing more directly to them at this time. ... We’ve been flooded with e-mails from women and hear about it at events every day.”
Former Colorado Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, who considered a run for president two decades ago, has watched with fascination as the Clinton campaign grapples with “the gender card.” Schroeder, who has endorsed Clinton, said there still is no blueprint for how a woman should act when running for the White House, particularly when the odds grow long.
“For a man, if you need him to be more powerful, you put on a blue blazer, a white shirt and a red tie,” she said. “If you need him to be more accessible and down to earth, you lose the jacket and loosen the tie or throw on a casual shirt with rolled-up sleeves.
“For women,” Schroeder said, “there is still no formula for how to appear as a credible political candidate. They usually either look like a Vogue model or an unmade bed.”
Clinton supporters say the increasing charges of sexism among the candidate’s surrogates are to be expected because Clinton has been looked at through a lens of gender that would never be applied to a male candidate. Everything from her pantsuits to her laugh to her “thick ankles” have been critiqued. At one rally, a man yelled at Clinton, “Iron my shirt!” And the moment in New Hampshire when her eyes misted over as she talked about her hopes of winning the nomination was fodder for analysis for weeks.
“I had really thought we had moved beyond the crying thing,” said Schroeder, who was criticized for breaking down in tears when she decided not to make a bid for the White House in 1987. “But clearly that’s not the case. Women politicians apparently still can’t show the softer side.”
It is routine in politics that the news of the day forces candidates to address issues they’d rather avoid. For example, Obama had long tried to run a campaign that didn’t focus on his race, a strategy that was derailed in recent weeks as reports surfaced of controversial racial comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama ended up making a high-profile speech specifically about race and racism in America.
For Clinton, the issue of gender has garnered additional attention because of the daily news.
Former Sen. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee who has endorsed Clinton, said it would be easier for a black man to be elected to the White House than a woman. New opinion polls indicate that although working-class women remain a mainstay of support for Clinton, more than 50 percent of Democratic men and 44 percent of Democratic women report having negative views of her. Some political analysts even suggest she could be hurt by several recent revelations of extramarital affairs by politicians reminding voters of Bill Clinton’s indiscretions and the humiliation that Hillary Clinton endured as a result.
Still, many scholars who study gender and politics say there is much in Clinton’s political campaign that leads them to answer “yes” to that oft-whispered question: Is America ready for a woman to serve as president?
They point to opinion polls that routinely indicated that voters view Clinton as more experienced than Obama. They argue that even those who most disdain Clinton see her as a formidable candidate who could give the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, a serious battle in the election. And they see positive signs in the fact that, like any male counterpart, Clinton has been resoundingly taken to task for political missteps, such as the recent furor over her embellishment of the combat dangers she faced on a 1996 trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“The role that gender plays in this campaign right now is absolutely fascinating,” said Lynn Sanders, associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
“What’s interesting is that for whatever else Hillary is seen as - `a monster,’ according to some, `the terminator,’ according to others - she’s seen by almost no one as a joke,” Sanders said. “The fact that no one is simply ruling her out is a very big indicator of how far female candidates have come.
“Perhaps the greatest measure of how much things have changed is how well she’s managed to weather her own mistakes and remain a viable candidate,” Sanders said.
No doubt, a gender gap has helped Clinton in some regards. Older, middle-age and working-class women have remained core constituents. A recent poll looking at voters in the pivotal upcoming battleground state of Pennsylvania found that Clinton leads Obama among female voters by 60 percent to 31 percent. Yet young, well-educated women are turning to Obama. For them, gender is not a driving factor in their vote - or even a factor at all.
“They absolutely believe a woman will be president during their lifetime,” Sanders said. “They don’t feel that is their battle at all. And these women believe that they as women will benefit just as much from an African-American man who is going to work to impact racial disadvantages. Women know that, historically, when minorities are positively influenced, so are women.”
Schroeder summed it up like this: “I think what you’re hearing a lot from people is basically this: `I’m all for having a woman president - just not this woman.’ “
Still, it seems clear the Clinton campaign is going to go after women voters aggressively with a female-centered message in the coming weeks. In a recent speech to Pennsylvania women, Clinton pointed out that the state’s pivotal April 22 primary falls on national “Equal Pay Day” and reminded women that the average American woman currently earns only about 77 cents for every dollar her male counterpart earns. She said that women make more of a family’s health-care decisions and thus have more of an interest in her plan for universal health care than men. And she promised to bring her experiences as “daughter, sister, wife and mother” to the White House.
The question is how effective such a strategy will be. Schroeder concedes there is a grave risk of turning off male voters by turning the spotlight so clearly onto gender.
And there is no way to predict how the strategy will fuel the segment of America that has been most aggressive at bashing Clinton. The vitriol, after all, already has been significant. One nasty example that infuriated Clinton supporters was when McCain was asked at a South Carolina rally, “How do we beat the bitch?” Another well-known and blatantly sexist slap is a 44,000-member Facebook group called “Hillary Clinton Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich.”
(Chicago Tribune reporter Rick Pearson contributed to this report.)