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'We Have Her Back' memo cleverly wards off attacks on Kamala Harris

'We Have Her Back' memo cleverly wards off attacks on Kamala Harris
© Bonnie Cash

Were the female authors of the "We Have Her Back" memo concerned about racism and sexism? Were they determined to protect Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden pushes into Trump territory The Hill's Campaign Report: One week from Election Day | Biden looks to expand map | Trump trails narrowly in Florida, Arizona The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - One week out, where the Trump, Biden race stands MORE (D-Calif.) in particular from damaging news coverage? Or was it just a clever Democratic ploy?

Representatives of liberal groups such as Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Women’s Law Center and Supermajority recently wrote to senior news types urging “internal consideration” about what kinds of words and topics are acceptable in reporting on Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska Jeff Daniels narrates new Biden campaign ad for Michigan MORE’s vice presidential pick and which are not. Certain topics were described as adding to the “systemic inequality” that women and people of color endure and promoting “stereotypes and tropes” that undermine those people’s public images.  

The Aug. 6 memo was sent to media bigwigs before Biden announced that Harris would be joining his ticket. But some of the talking points might be seen as targeted to head off unflattering reviews of the California senator. 

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The memo says that reporters or anchors should not:

  • Suggest that a female candidate is politically ambitious while ignoring similar ambition in men.
  • Suggest that a woman isn’t “seen as subservient or supportive” in her relationships with partners, donors, staff, etc.
  • Discuss whether the candidate is “likable.”
  • Describe the woman’s weight, looks, tone of voice, attractiveness, etc. without doing the same regarding a male candidate.
  • Report “on questions of electability” as a “perpetuation of a stereotype.”
  • Report “on doubts women may not be qualified leaders” even when a candidate is equally or more qualified than men.
  • Report on the heritage of Black women because it “perpetuates a misunderstanding about who is legitimately American.”
  • Use pictures showing anger or passion that might suggest women are “too emotional or irrational” to hold office.

Nearly every one of these points taps into concerns that some critics have expressed about Harris.

For instance, in recent months, some Biden backers had warned the former VP against choosing Harris because they considered her too “ambitious.” 

Perhaps equally helpful to Harris would be ruling out discussions of “likability.” In July of last year, after she clobbered Biden in the first Democratic primary debate, a poll of New Hampshire voters found her favorability to be quite high, at 54 percent. But only 5 percent of voters found her “likable.” 

How about eliminating any discussion of the candidate’s appearance, tone of voice and other characteristics? Surely most commentary about Harris would be positive, no? She is attractive and energetic. Yet in 2013, former President Obama sparked controversy when he described Harris as the “best-looking attorney general in the country.” Obama had to apologize, with his spokesman insisting that “he did not want in any way to diminish the attorney general's professional accomplishments and her capabilities.” Supporters don’t want her talents overshadowed (or undermined) by her good looks, apparently. 

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Then there is the ban on discussing “electability.” Early in the Democratic primary races, Harris fought the notion that the eventual nominee had to be the most “electable” candidate. Establishment Democrats determined that person to be Biden; only Biden, they thought, could win back those working-class voters who defected to Donald Trump in 2016. In May of last year, Harris told attendees at the NAACP convention, “There has been a lot of conversation by pundits about ‘electability’ and who can speak to the Midwest.” She pushed her candidacy, saying that such a narrow definition was “short-sighted” and “wrong.” 

But even if the “We Have Her Back” memo was not clearly aimed at shielding Harris from problematic coverage, it should be offensive to many women. As is usually the case when a particular class of person is “protected,” the prohibitions recommended by the memo are utterly insulting to women. Women are not fragile; they can hold their own in debate and before the press. To suggest otherwise, which is how this memo should be read, is ridiculous.

Does anyone think that Margaret Thatcher wilted under the sobriquet “Iron Lady”? No, it made her stronger. Does Angela Merkel, often described as the world’s most powerful woman, hide from those who call her “frumpy?” What an absurdity.

Is this an American thing? Are our women weaker and in need of special protections? 

Or, instead, is this an ongoing, tiresome excuse being offered for the unexpected defeat of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGorsuch rejects Minnesota Republican's request to delay House race Biden leads Trump by 6 points in Nevada: poll The Memo: Women could cost Trump reelection MORE in 2016 that set off endless soul-searching among those who could not — and still cannot — imagine why voters chose Trump?

One of the bigger potential obstacles to a Biden-Harris victory is widespread disgust at today’s “cancel culture.” Most people do not like being told what to think; most will reject directives such as those laid down in this memo. The groups and individuals behind the memo may think they are helping Harris and perhaps other women in politics. In reality, they likely are achieving just the opposite with many Americans.

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. Follow her on Twitter @lizpeek.