Columns » Jay Barth

Hillary Clinton's well-played gender card



Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign for president is the most thoroughly critiqued primary candidacy of all time. No single strategic decision explains that campaign's underperformance, but perhaps the most compelling argument for the campaign's early challenges was her misplaying of the gender card in the rollout of her campaign. The early signs from her second race for president indicate that this will be a very different Clinton campaign in terms of gender.

As best recounted in Anne Kornblut's "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling," Clinton's consultants in 2008 were convinced that any woman candidate needed to downplay the more stereotypically feminine aspects of her life story and personality and to emphasize her "readiness" for the "tough job" of being president. Decades of research on the distinct challenges facing women candidates in the United States were in step with that strategic choice. However, those consultants missed three things: Clinton, having proven her toughness for decades, was not a traditional female candidate; the historic nature of their chief opponent's campaign was fuel for his grassroots candidacy; and gender politics were changing as Americans simultaneously focused on the continued limitations facing their sisters and daughters four decades after Title IX and slowly became accustomed to women holding positions of power across the business and political worlds.

In choosing to run the campaign of an "insider" in the early months of campaign 2008, many felt that Clinton failed to take advantage of the historic nature of her candidacy and to engage grassroots supporters. Sitting at a Des Moines bar just a couple of evenings before the Iowa caucuses in which Clinton would finish third behind Barack Obama and John Edwards, Democratic consultant Joe Trippi (then working for Edwards) said that if he had been coordinating Clinton's campaign, he would have centered on the historic nature of her candidacy and would have focused on getting a $100 contribution from 1 million women. (Yes, it is somewhat quaint, but in that pre-Citizens United world, I remember $100 million sounding like a lot of political money.)

Much has changed since Iowa in 2008. First, the Clinton campaign showed energy in those moments when gender surfaced explicitly and, as a woman, Clinton was a particularly effective voice for all "outsiders" in the closing weeks of the campaign. Second, in 2012 we saw a successful, thoroughly gendered campaign for president, albeit by a male candidate; the Obama campaign's emphasis on gender issues such as pay equity and birth control access helped in rolling up a monstrous gender gap in key states; it also showed that those issues resonated with men desiring equal opportunity for the women in their lives.

The 2016 version of the Clinton campaign has already been "feminized" in several ways. First, many have focused on Clinton's absence from all but the closing seconds of the stylishly produced video "Getting Started" that announced her candidacy a week ago Sunday. In short, in 2008, Clinton "leaned in"; in her 2016 kickoff, she "leaned back" to let others speak first. But, unlike the problematic dynamic where women lean back to let men take the lead, it is primarily female voices that speak in the first two minutes of the web advertisement. (Moreover, three of the males who do speak are a father talking about his baby's imminent birth while patting his wife's belly, a kindergartener singing a cute song, and one half of a same-sex couple; those are anything but traditional male perspectives.)

During her van trip from New York to Iowa, the emphasis was on low-key and on spontaneity, a theme that persisted across her opening week in Iowa where small group conversations replaced the hyper-orchestrated rallies of 2008. This has allowed Iowans (and television cameras, of course) to see a more relaxed Clinton, and early reviews were good. Earlier this week, Politico published an interview with the woman who "made Clinton cry" by asking her a question ("How do you do it?") at a New Hampshire coffee shop the day before the 2008 primary. Marianne Pernold Young said about the newest incarnation of Clinton: "She seems softer. She seems more approachable. ... I'd like her to be my friend, whereas before I couldn't have cared less." (Interestingly, in the same interview, Young — who clearly has a love/hate relationship with Clinton — also described her as a "true megalomaniac" who stayed in her marriage because of her hunger for power.)

Her website and her public statements also emphasize Clinton's history of fighting for women and children. In this regard, Arkansas is central as many of the most tangible accomplishments are in these arenas: from founding Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, to her work on the neonatal intensive care unit at Children's Hospital, to education reform.

With time, it's clear that the Clinton campaign will also emphasize the historic nature of her candidacy as an impetus for grassroots enthusiasm and as a way to emphasize her being an expression of "change," despite her age and longevity on the political scene.

Yes, it's a sign of how far we have to go as a society that a female candidate for any office has to think so much about the role that gender should play in her campaign. A campaign in which a female candidate for president is successful because of — rather than despite — her sex may be the best hope for moving us beyond that reality.

Add a comment