Bernie Sanders's continued demands for attention are keeping Hillary Clinton from turning to the general election, but some pundits are understandably impatient to get the Trump v. Clinton showdown going already. As the wait drags on, some have turned to speculation. Peter Beinart of the Atlantic predicts that Clinton is chomping at the bit to run a full-blown negative campaign against Trump.
"Rope-a-dope isn’t Clinton’s style," Beinart writes. "When facing political threats, her pattern has been to strike first—and with great force."
Hmmmm.....maybe. The evidence Beinart brings to bear is surprisingly weak for such a confidently asserted position: A story about Clinton's behavior as a child dealing with a playground bully, followed by a few anecdotes about Clinton urging her husband to go on the attack during his own campaigns in 1974 and 1980. Oh, and she was unkind to Gennifer Flowers in 1992, because certainly there's no other reason than tactical for a woman to feel grumpy towards a woman who is humiliating you in public by bragging about sleeping with your husband.
Not mentioned is evidence from Clinton's own career as a politician, which strikes me, being one of those radical feminists who thinks women are people apart from their husbands, as far more important to determining how a woman operates than the advice she gives her husband.
That said, Beinart isn't really trying to paint Clinton in a negative light, even though some sexist readers will be primed to freak out at the merest whiff of a suggestion of female aggression. (Or because socialism. Always because socialism.) He is making a genuinely feminist point, which is to denounce the fears that Clinton will be decimated by Trump's schoolyard bullying approach to politics, an assumption clearly more rooted in sexist beliefs about women's weakness than in actual evidence.
"The conventional wisdom is that Trump’s penchant for gutter politics makes him difficult for Clinton to handle," he writes. "I suspect that’s wrong."
For sure, anyone who thinks Clinton is going to just sit there and take it when Trump starts dishing it out is a fool. But I suspect that her strategy is going to be a tad more subtle than what Beinart is suggesting here. There will be negative ads — Clinton won't be afraid to paint Trump as an exploitative capitalist monster — but all signs suggest that she will be using a rope-a-dope strategy to paint Trump as an unreconstructed misogynist.
The strategy to paint one's opponent as sexist is a fairly simple one: Hang back, projecting amusement at your opponent's silly ways, and wait until his ego is so bruised by the specter of female contempt that he lashes out and says or does something that reads as sexist. Use that male fear that women are laughing at them as bait.
It doesn't work on everyone — Obama, for instance, is not insecure enough to bait like that — but Clinton has employed this strategy to great effect in the past. During her campaign for Senate in 2000, she effectively destroyed her Republican opponent Rick Lazio this way. Lazio got into Clinton's personal space during a debate, trying to use his size to intimidate her, and even wagging a finger in her face. The Clinton campaign pounced, painting him (correctly) as sexist, and appealing to every woman (i.e. all of us) who has dealt with a man who uses such tactics against us.
"I knew I was going to share a stage,'' Clinton joked. ''I didn't think I was going to have to share a podium.''
Lazio took the bait like a champ, busting out whiny claims that he was the real victim of sexism, which plays roughly as well as it does every time a misogynist acts victimized when people take umbrage at his behavior.
With Sanders, Clinton has had a lighter hand, but she's still been able to employ this strategy effectively. During debates, she has frequently laughed indulgently at Sanders, and he responded by acting, well, sexist: Wagging his finger at her and interrupting her condescendingly, behaviors most women recognize as a man trying to pull gender rank in order to win an argument he can't win on the points. While this has devolved into an endless, circular debate about whether Sanders is "really" sexist or if he's just condescending to everyone, the strategy seems to have helped Clinton in securing the women's vote.
(My take is this: Whether or not he "meant" to be sexist is irrelevant. Sanders's unwillingness to consider why women might feel like men are dominating us by talking at us like we are children is a form of sexism.)
With Trump, this strategy will work like a charm. His belief in female inferiority is so ingrained and pure and rooted in magical thinking that it is both comical and offensive all on its own, without Clinton lifting a finger to highlight some of the worst aspects of it. He routinely underestimates women, making the rope-a-dope strategy easy to pull off, because he really won't see it coming. Plus, he's a thin-skinned bully, making it easy for Clinton to provoke him into sexist behavior by laughing at him.
Hell, this isn't even speculation. She's already rolling out the laugh-at-the-sexist-pig maneuver to great effect. When Trump squawked about how she is unqualified and only coasting on the "woman card", the Clinton campaign struck back with humor. Her campaign rolled out a "woman card" that you can get with a campaign donation that highlighted some of the "benefits" of being female, such as lower wages and paltry representation in government. The effort has already netted, within the space of three days, $2.4 million in campaign donations.
But instead of realizing what a doofus he is, Trump has doubled down, insisting, against all evidence to the contrary, that Clinton is less qualified than he is and her gender is the only reason people don't see that.
It's easy to paint someone as sexist when they spend every waking moment going out of their way to prove it for you. It's almost unfair to call it "going negative" when Clinton highlights Trump's sexism against her. Calling sexism out for what it is should only be read as a positive thing that pays off dividends beyond just getting Clinton into office.