Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hillary’s gender politics cheapens presidential campaign

Editor's note: I realized today that somehow, I neglected to post this column the week it was published. My apologies!

(Originally published 11/3/07)

Asked in Tuesday’s MSNBC debate whether she supported New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton gave just the sort of meandering answer her opponents have long awaited.

The Politico’s Roger Simon called it "the worst performance of her entire campaign.

"It was not just that her answer … was at best incomprehensible and at worst misleading. It was that for two hours she dodged and weaved, parsed and stonewalled," he said.

But Clinton tried to spin the disaster into a positive, arguing that all the other candidates – all men – had engaged in "The Politics of Pile-On."

It’s no secret that Clinton has made her gender the cornerstone of her campaign. Her home page invites visitors to "Help Make History." In an endorsement, one congresswoman writes that "As women, we know that our home and work environments directly impact our lives, and that developing an effective energy policy is crucial for the long-term economic stability of our country." (Are they insinuating that men don't know these things?) And other links on the site include "Women Changing America Week" and "Winning Over GOP Women."

Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn said this week that “Hillary has the potential … to win almost a quarter of Republican women in the general election.” And after Tuesday night’s debate, a male focus group participant said he believed that “20 million Republican women” would vote for Clinton without telling the GOP men in their lives.

So after being targeted on Tuesday night by her presidential primary rivals, Clinton – naturally – made it about gender.

While picking up the AFSCME endorsement Wednesday, union president Gerald McEntee said, "Some of you may have seen last night’s debate. Six guys against Hillary – I’d call that a fair fight.” Later, when she spoke at her alma mater of Wellesley College, she said that the education she received at the all-women’s school had prepared her for the "all-boy's club of presidential politics."

I’m confused. Is Clinton insinuating that women should vote for her because they are women and so is she? If so, isn’t she cheapening her experience? And doesn’t that denigrate the very social progress that the election of a female president would symbolize?

Republican strategist (and adviser to GOP candidate Fred Thompson) Rich Galen warned that Clinton’s gender-based strategy may backfire.

"Americans may be perfectly happy to have a female president, but they probably do not want a female president who is going to be shattered by being put upon by men – especially if the men she is being shattered by happen to run countries like Iran and Cuba and North Korea and China," he said.

In other words, Clinton may win the sympathy of her fellow Americans. But that sympathy may drive them to vote for someone else.

* * *
South Carolina’s Democratic Party bosses decided this week to bar Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert from the state’s primary. With apologies to Sports Illustrated, the specter of Colbert on a debate stage with other presidential candidates would have been a sure sign that the apocalypse was upon us.

I enjoy good political humor as much as the next guy (or gal, Hillary). But there is a fine line between smart, witty satire and the foundational lack of respect – the visceral disgust, really – that characterizes political satire on Comedy Central, where hosts genuinely seem to hate the institutions they satirize.

None of our presidential candidates is perfect. But anyone whose reputation was made solely on bad impersonations of Bill O’Reilly should stick to armchair quarterbacking from the cheap seats.

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