Hillary’s feminine strategy is risky

Wasn't it more likely that Mike Gravel would become vice president than Sen. Hillary Clinton — that tough, disciplined, unflinchingly confident and “inevitable” candidate — would bolt from her position of strength to crouch in weakness, and allow herself to look like a panicked whiner?

Apparently not.

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Last week Clinton was just “inches from a clean getaway,” (to borrow a Jack Nicholson line), in the final ten minutes of the Democratic debate when her answer on New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's policy on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants suddenly turned into a significant chapter in her race for president. Rivals former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) rocketed through the opening they had been pining for, calling out Clinton for her doublespeak and waffling.

Instead of plastering on her smile shield and talking more about those men being “obsessed” with her, Clinton sent out prominent surrogate Geraldine Ferraro to say she had been “attacked,” and that her opponents reaction to her this-way-and-that answer was “sexist.” It was a rapid transformation for Clinton, from macho pol to wounded woman, and raises the obvious question: Just how quickly would Obama's candidacy end if he complained that his opponents went after his answers at a debate because he is a black man?

Don't worry, Hillary took the high road and told reporters she knows she was a target because she is the frontrunner and is winning. Then Ferraro insisted that the campaign was not, in fact, playing the gender card. “We are not. We are not. We have got to stand up. It's discrimination against her as a candidate because she is a woman,” Ferraro said. And that, according to the first female nominee for vice president in the history of the United States, is not playing the gender card?

It got worse. Bill Clinton, the big gun, the most powerful weapon in any arsenal in politics, decided to drop a bomb. Speaking to postal workers this week the former president dared to invoke the S word – swiftboating – when discussing the reaction to his wife's flub of a question at the debate. Yes, somehow questioning why his wife can't provide a straight answer on a home state policy is comparable to questioning a decorated veteran's military honor.

But all of this is even more doublespeak. While decrying these unfair “attacks,” the Clintons are responsible for keeping the story alive for a week now. Why? Because they saw it as yet another political opportunity. In 2000, Clinton was the beneficiary of a wellspring of sympathy and support that was prompted by former Rep. Rick Lazio's surprise walk across the debate stage to ask Clinton to sign a pledge. So this week the Clinton campaign, a place where women hold the most sway, told The New York Times it knew the incident could help Hillary appeal to women. “Aides to Mrs. Clinton suggested that by highlighting this episode — a statement by the campaign called her a “strong woman” as it denounced the “politics of piling on” — they were taking a lesson from what happened in the 2000 Senate race, suggesting that once again women would rally around Mrs. Clinton for showing strength in the face of attack.”

This is a risky strategy. Blaming a vast male conspiracy sounds like whining and it makes Clinton appear self-absorbed and focused on her own political power. This is precisely the perception, left over from the 1990s, that she must work hard to shake if she hopes to pick up those women (and men) who are uncommitted and uncomfortable with her. Playing victim also smacks of “meism,” the kind David Brooks wrote eloquently about last month in his New York Times column (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/16/opinion/16brooks.html ) on why Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) could no longer bear to stay in Congress.

Clinton is attempting to crush a cricket with a cannonball because at some level she knows that the message of her as doublespeaking, calculating, politician still resonates. Her smart and meticulous operation is aware that many Americans have not recovered from or forgotten their Clinton fatigue, despite her shrewd and successful metamorphosis from liberal partisan to presidential centrist. In addition, if Clinton was making an overt appeal to the lesser-educated women with lower incomes she is likely wasting her time because she already locked up this vote. She should be careful not to risk alienating those who loathe the gender card, those better-educated women with higher incomes who tend to prefer Obama. It is a group polls show Clinton has recently made inroads with.

Clinton said when she started her campaign that she wasn't interested in running as a woman, that she was as tough as any of those guys. I think she is much tougher. Her challenge as the only female candidate is hefty, to be sure. She will clearly be exclusively hurt and helped by the disadvantages that come with being the first woman to have a strong shot at becoming president. Many people have decided Clinton, who sat at the ear and shoulder of the leader of the free world for eight years, has the best experience to be our next president. But many minds were also made up long ago, against her. As she pursues those remaining open minds, Clinton might try modifying her sudden swings from hard and tough to soft and vulnerable. Women don't want Clinton to make them feel weak. Men don't want Clinton to make them feel weak either.
 

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