Hillary Clinton and the Woman Thing

I can't help asking women I know what they think about Hillary Clinton. Here is the historic, first viable woman candidate for President of the United States, and yet . . . ho-hum. I listened to a group of accomplished women of about the same age as Hillary argue about her candidacy the other night. A fellow Wellesley alumna (she graduated before the Presidential candidate and didn't know her) said she can't stand Hillary's overbearing, dorm-monitor persona. A businesswoman laughed at the style criticisms--"Is that really important?"--and said she'd vote for Clinton because she's "really, really smart." And a filmmaker and an art curator both said they thought Hillary was OK.

All in all, enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton is not that high among women I know--certainly no match for the outright hatred for her that has been brewing for more than a decade on the right.

Lakshmi Chaudhry describes it in the July 2 cover story of The Nation as a "feminist problem." She corrects Anna Quindlen, who wrote in Newsweek that "Senator Clinton has a woman problem." In fact, Chaudhry observes, Clinton polls the highest of all the candidates among likely women voters in the Democratic primary, and gets 21 points more among independent women than independent men. The criticisms of Hillary she quotes are mainly from progressives, like Code Pink's Medea Benjamin and Bitch magazine's Lisa Jervis.

Quindlen is right, too, though. "When we imagined a woman President, we imagined a new day," she writes. Instead, in Hillary we have a professional pol. Ultimately, Quindlen puts a good spin on it: Maybe "likeability" is overrated, she writes, and suggests we look where electing the candidate we'd rather have a beer with has gotten us.

But for progressives, as Chaudhry observes, the problem goes beyond matters of style. Hillary is a centrist, who rubs progressives the wrong way--most of all on the war. Back in 1992, when she was running with Bill as a new kind of first lady--an accomplished professional, a humane liberal, a board member of the Children's Defense Fund--enthusiasm was a lot higher on the left. But dropping progressive ties (along with old friends like Marian Wright Edelman and Lani Guinier) has been part of the Clintons' career trajectory.

Actually, I would say, the problem with Hillary is the same as the problem with other recent Democratic frontrunners. She is the establishment candidate, with neither the fire nor the freshness of the "fringe" candidates who are not afraid to stand for something. Watching the line-up of primary contenders speak to the base in Wisconsin in 2004 was a lesson in the diminishing returns of Democratic Party politics. Russ Feingold, David Obey, Tammy Baldwin--the whole progressive delegation from Bob La Follette's home state--spoke passionately against the war, the Patriot Act, and the excesses of the Bush Administration. So did the least-likely Presidential candidates--Kucinich, Sharpton, and, of course, Howard Dean. At the very end came John Kerry, whose best stab at an applause line was a pitch to "fully fund No Child Left Behind." His eventual running mate, Edwards, who sat on the same intelligence committee in the Senate as Feingold, did not yet oppose the Iraq War (though Feingold was already outraged by the dog-and-pony show he'd seen from the Administration on that committee).

Now, four years later, the rest of the country has come around to the "fringe" view that the war in Iraq was a sham and a disaster, the attack on American civil liberties a serious concern. And we have Hillary, where Kerry once stood, splitting the difference on these urgent matters. It's the same thing she did as Senator: co-sponsoring legislation criminalizing flag-burning while opposing the flag-burning amendment, dodging discussion of the Iraq War when it mattered most, while bravely taking a stand against violence in video games.

The triangulation strategy that made her husband famous--and maddening--is evident in Clinton's many conservative legislative efforts--working with Sam Brownback and Joe Lieberman to boost her stock with social conservatives, talking tough about military spending and the need to confront Iran.

Still, watching the Democratic debate, I wondered about the "woman thing." I didn't share the feeling that Hillary Clinton won the debate. But I've heard it enough times since then, and seen the bump in her poll numbers, to understand she accomplished her mission. Could a woman win a Presidential election in this country and be personally appealing and progressive enough to excite people like me? Any woman who is going to hold her own against those big male egos in our bizarre political culture is likely to come off as cold and overbearing. If she were warmer, she would no doubt be criticized as soft. If she were not so pro-military, we'd have to endure all the questions about whether a woman could find the strength to drop bombs on America's enemies. Remember, during the Reagan years, when you heard people argue that a woman couldn't be President because she would not be able to bring herself to "push the button" and start a nuclear war?

No one suggests that Hillary wouldn't push the button.

You could say that's evidence of how far women have come . . . I guess.

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