Clinton puts gender front and center
LAS VEGAS — Hillary Clinton is comfortable talking about gender, finally.
At Tuesday night’s Democratic debate here, Clinton emphasized the potentially mold-breaking nature of her candidacy, cast several policy positions in terms of their relevance to women and even made a restroom-related joke with CNN moderator Anderson Cooper.
It was a far cry from Clinton’s 2008 White House bid, much of which was spent downplaying her gender and taking pains to ensure that the candidate would not be seen as lacking gravitas or toughness.
Most experts believe she and her aides have come to a belated recognition that an emphasis on gender can help, rather than hinder, her campaign.
“In 2008, there was an assumption [within her campaign] that it was pretty obvious people knew she was a woman — ‘Of course that is known, let’s focus on other things,’ ” said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “And then it became, ‘Oh, wait, not enough attention is being paid to that.’
“I don’t think she has changed and I don’t think the American people have changed,” Lawless added. “But I do think there has been political learning involved.”
During her first presidential run, the most memorable remark Clinton made about gender came only as she ended the campaign.
“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” she told supporters in Washington, in a reference to the total number of votes she had received in her long primary battle with President Obama.
But in the very first minutes of the first debate of this election cycle, Clinton introduced herself as “the granddaughter of a factory worker and the grandmother of a wonderful one-year-old child.”
Later, she referred to the struggles she had encountered balancing the demands of career and family life as a “young mother … having a baby wake up who was sick, and I’m supposed to be in court because I’m practicing law.”
While such sentiments are fairly standard in political campaigning, they are the kind of appeals that Clinton largely abjured during her previous run.
On policy, too, Clinton often brought gender to the fore — and not only on topics that are seen as stereotypical “women’s issues.”
Asked about expanding social security, Clinton talked unprompted about the particular challenges facing less well-off women.
“I want to enhance the benefits for the poorest recipients of Social Security,” she said. “We have a lot of women on Social Security, particularly widowed and single women, who didn’t make a lot of money during their careers, and they are impoverished, and they need more help from the Social Security system.”
Such comments aim to make clear that her candidacy is not merely about notching up a symbolic victory for women, according to Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer.
“I think that is as much directed toward Republicans as it is to other Democrats,” he said. “The point is, ‘We don’t just care about having someone on the ticket who is not just another white male; this is a party that cares about the issues that actually matter.’ That’s really what that message is about.”
Conservatives are particularly scathing of that claim, of course.
“She really has little choice but to run on her gender,” GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway insisted. “She has flip-flopped on so much that just about the only thing that hasn’t changed since 2008 is her gender.”
Conway also argued that Clinton’s appeal to women at large was overstated, asserting that her fame, wealth and the rarefied circles in which she moves means that “she can give these grandiose, sweeping statements. But how will she overcome the fact that she has so little in common with the average American woman?”
Conway further insisted that talk of Democrats benefiting from a “gender gap” among women ignored the obvious corollary — that the party struggles with male voters and that Clinton could be ill-equipped to ease what the pollster termed an “explosive” weakness.
This pattern was evident in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Tuesday, hours before the debate took place. It found that Clinton’s favorability rating was somewhat stronger among all women than that of her main Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — but much worse among men.
Sanders net favorability was neutral among women (33 percent favorable to 33 percent unfavorable) and one point above that among men (38-37). Clinton had a net positive rating of 8 points among women (51-43) but a net negative of 13 points among men (42-55.)
Still, if Clinton is seen, especially by her critics, as a deeply embedded member of the Washington establishment, the mere fact of her gender enables her to present herself as an agent of change, her supporters believe.
On Tuesday, she said that if she were ultimately elected, “yes, finally, fathers will be able to say to their daughters, you, too, can grow up to be president.”
Less seriously — but perhaps just as memorably — Anderson Cooper at one point on Tuesday night, returning from a commercial break, expressed relief that Clinton had made it back to her lectern, evidently having gone to the restroom.
“You know, it does take me a little longer,” Clinton said, to laughter — the kind of remark it would have been almost unimaginable for her to make in 2008.
“I think that was an incredibly humanizing moment,” said Lawless. “It’s something every single woman watching last night could relate to.”
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