Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Photo montage by Salon)

The GOP's next 2016 scheme: How right-wingers will try to use Hillary's gender against her

The right has its dogwhistles at the ready. Why "foreign policy" debates will be about much more


Heather Digby Parton
April 17, 2015 2:00PM (UTC)

Let me just preface this piece by saying how much I admire Elizabeth Warren and how thrilled I'd be if she decided to run for president. Two serious, accomplished women politicians debating the issues on the presidential campaign trail is something I never dreamed I'd see in my lifetime. It's a sad comment on our political culture that such a demographically mundane circumstance would be unprecedented at this late date in our country's history. But I am persuaded that this will not be the cycle in which that happens simply by the fact that neither Senator Warren nor her supporters have been at all interested in laying out a foreign policy and national security agenda. You cannot run for president without that.

As we've seen many times over the years, foreign policy and national security are particularly tricky for Democrats even when one is a certified war hero like John Kerry (or even John Kennedy). Even the hardcore Cold Warriors of the Democratic Party suffered for the fact that the right had associated them with socialism during the Great Depression and turned that into sympathy for Communism. By the time the '60s were over, they were routinely portrayed as cowardly and treasonous for opposing the Vietnam War and characterized in "feminized" terms such as "weak" and "emotional." (Here's a particularly crude example of the genre of recent vintage.)

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All Democratic politicians have had to fight that stereotype ever since then. And all Democratic presidents have struggled while in office to deal with it. Even the dramatic killing of Osama bin Laden under President Obama failed to stop them from calling him a weak and feckless leader, even to the point where they are willing to risk nuclear war to make their point. This dynamic has, over time, succeeded in making Democrats more hawkish and Republicans downright reckless.

So where does this leave Hillary Clinton? She seems to have as good a resume for the Commander in Chief job as any woman could have with her close proximity to power in the White House for eight years, her eight years as senator and four years as Secretary of State. The only thing missing is a stint in the armed forces -- which is also missing on the CV of most of the Republicans presenting themselves as fierce warriors, so it should be no harm, no foul there. (The exceptions being Texas Governor Rick Perry, a pilot in the Air Force, and South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, a member of the Air Force JAG corps.) But stereotypes are very hard to dislodge; even with her reputation for toughness, and despite her sterling resume, Clinton will be pushing against something very primal. The Republicans know this, which is why some of us have been pretty sure they would try to frame this election as a national security election if they could. And they are. Those elections always give them an advantage in any case, and if a woman is the standard bearer it stands to reason that advantage would be even greater.

But what about the women voters who will presumably be less prone to follow such stereotyping? Unfortunately, it's not a simple case of men being sexist. As Heather Hurlburt points out in this article in the American Prospect, we live in anxious times, and in anxious times, women can often revert to stereotypes as well:

Gender politics magnify the electoral effects of anxiety in two ways. First, in surveys and other studies, women consistently report higher levels of anxiety. In fact, women poll twice as anxious as men, largely independent of the specific topic. Women are more concerned about security, physical and economic, than men. According to Lake, Gotoff, and Ogren, women “across racial, educational, partisan, and ideological divides” have “heightened concerns” about terrorism. Those concerns make women “more security-conscious in general and more supportive of the military than they were in the past.”

Walmart-sponsored focus groups found women expressing a significant and steady level of anxiety over the months preceding the 2014 midterms. At one session, the explanation was Ebola; another, ISIS—whatever had most recently dominated cable-news headlines. The pollsters interpreted the responses as “emblematic of anxiety they feel regarding other issues, including national security, job security, and people ‘getting stuff they aren’t entitled to,’ such as health care and other government benefits.”

The majority of voters express equal confidence in men and women as leaders, but when national security is the issue, confidence in women’s leadership declines. In a Pew poll in January, 37 percent of the respondents said that men do better than women in dealing with national security, while 56 percent said gender makes no difference. That was an improvement from decades past, but sobering when compared to the 73 percent who say gender is irrelevant to leadership on economic issues.

That isn't inevitable, of course. A lot depends upon the individuals who are competing for the job. And from the looks of the GOP field there aren't many who come across as great warrior leaders who can lay claim to any particular national security experience.

But as much as foreign policy and national security will likely be issues, so too will all those other anxiety-producing problems. And in that respect, Clinton is likely to be in much better shape than the Republicans who are retreating to their standard playbook organized around lowering taxes and regulations as the elixer that cures everything. It's unlikely that anyone, much less working women, will find that to be soothing in these anxious times.

The Republicans say that Clinton is the one saddled with the old ideas of the past. But that's actually not true at all. This piece by Adam Ozimek at Forbes sets the record straight:

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I believe there is a new liberal consensus on economic policy emerging and gathering strength. Department of Labor senior advisor Mary Beth Maxwell identifies it as well in a Medium post on “A ‘New’ Conventional Wisdom on Labor”. She quotes Paul Krugman, who provides what I think amounts to the basic case:

“Low wages, he argues, are not the product of inscrutable market forces, but rather choices. He joins many others in connecting rising income inequality with the decline in workers’ bargaining power.”

It’s not just Paul Krugman and liberal politicians like Barack Obama and labor secretary Tom Perez embracing this “new consensus” either. Even some centrist economists like Larry Summers and Robert Rubin have been making similar arguments.

What’s important is that this isn’t just a restatement of long-time core liberal commitments, but a conclusion that is drawn from recent trends in empirical research. For example, the strain of minimum wage research led by Arin Dube and coathors that suggests little to no impacts of a higher minimum wage. And here’s a recent publication from the Peterson Institute for International Economics with empirical papers arguing for higher wages from Justin Wolfers, Adam Posen, Jacob Funk Kirkegaard and others.

None other than James Pethokoukis at AEI concurs:

Yuppers. Hillarynomics will focus on boosting middle-class incomes through the power of government. It will be a sweeping agenda likely to resemble the recent report put forward by the Center for American Progress’s Commission on Inclusive Prosperity and co-written by Larry Summers. As I wrote recently, “among its suggestions (which I summarize broadly): (a) increase support for profit sharing and employee stock ownership plans; (b) increase union power; (c) more infrastructure spending; (d) encourage home ownership through more Fannie and Freddie lending, plus principal reduction; (d) more public service jobs for young people; (e) “ensure a level playing field for global trade”; (f) raise effective tax rates on wealthier Americans; (g) more financial regulation; (h) paid parental leave, paid caregiving leave, paid sick days, paid vacation,protections for part-time workers; (i) more immigration at all skill levels; (j) more spending on early childhood education; and (k) executive pay reform.”

Now that ain’t nothing. Far from it. Republicans may not like these ideas, but they target the economic insecurity and anxiety that many Americans feel.

He asks what the GOP response to this program will be. I'll go out on a limb and say they'll try to find a fresh way to say ... cutting taxes and regulations.It's all they've got.

These early days of the Clinton campaign indicate that she's at least trying out some of the more Warren-esque themes that are emerging from those progressive policy shops. And they may just end up being her ace in the hole. Yes, she will have to work at overcoming the Democratic disadvantage on national security, but as I said, her opposition is hardly a group of warrior kings so it may not be as daunting as it seems. And as far as assuaging the economic anxieties of the average American, she is in possession of the most powerful political weapons a leader can have: new ideas. If she has the nerve to aggressively deploy them she may just find that those old stereotypes no longer have the power they once had.

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Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton


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