Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, both in 2008 and now, have always been at least partially about the chance to make history. The chance to elect the first female American president is supposed to get women voters excited, and increase the Democrats' long-running advantage with that voter group. But nearly a century after the Nineteenth Amendment recognized women's right to vote, Clinton fails to be the best torchbearer for American women in several ways.
Clinton seeks to be a role model for young women, but from her perspective, Obama stole this legacy from her.
This year, the Republicans have two viable candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who would be the first Hispanic American president if elected. And then there's Carly Fiorina, who is now directly threatening Clinton's legacy. Viewed as the longest of long shots when she entered the race, Fiorina fought her way on to the main debate stage and higher and higher in the polls.
Clinton is determined to be the first female president, to be that role model, and to be honored as the spiritual heir of the suffragettes, Rosie the Riveter, and the leaders of the Twentieth Century’s feminist revolution. The trouble is that the way Clinton is campaigning does a great disservice to the feminist cause, as evidenced at the first Democratic debate. Clinton may be able to hit the expected liberal feminist talking points, but she is providing little reason for women take pride in her candidacy.
One of the main problems with Clinton’s debate answers was that several times, she reduced her value and uniqueness as a candidate to nothing more than her gender.
When moderator Anderson Cooper asked Clinton to explain why she wouldn’t just be a third term of Obama, as many of her critics have suggested, Clinton’s instinct was not to discuss policy, but to point out the “obvious” fact that she is a woman.
COOPER: Secretary Clinton, how would you not be a third term of President Obama?
CLINTON: Well, I think that's pretty obvious. I think being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents we've had up until this point, including President Obama.
COOPER: Is there a policy difference?
CLINTON: Well, there's a lot that I would like to do to build on the successes of President Obama, but also, as I'm laying out, to go beyond. And that's in my economic plans, how I would deal with the prescription drug companies, how I would deal with college, how I would deal with a full range of issues that I've been talking about throughout this campaign to go further.
The tricky part about wanting to be the first female president is that being female is what Clinton is, not something that she does. [Insert obligatory joke here about it depending on what the meaning of the word “is” is.] Being the first female president is something Clinton would accomplish, if she were elected, in the very first second after getting sworn into office. She’d still have to find something to do for the remaining 3 years, 11 months, 30 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds of her first term.
Note that Cooper had to ask the question twice for Clinton to articulate policy differences between her and Obama, and even then, she actually ended up admitting what she was trying to deny. How else would one describe a third term as Obama besides “going beyond” and “going further” to “build on the successes” of the policies he had himself supported?
Clinton once again reminded everyone that she was a woman later in the debate when Cooper asked her why voters should embrace her as an insider, when this was “the year of the outsider in politics.” Her answer: “Well, I can't think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president, but I'm not just running because I would be the first woman president.”
Contrast Clinton’s comments with what Fiorina said at the last Republican debate, in response to the question about putting a woman on the ten dollar bill. Fiorina characterized changing our currency as merely a “gesture,” and rejected the premise of the question entirely.
“What I would think is that we ought to recognize that women are not a special interest group,” said Fiorina. “Women are the majority of this nation. We are half the potential of this nation, and this nation will be better off when every woman has the opportunity to live the life she chooses.”
Underlying Clinton’s repeated insistence that we all remember she’s got lady parts is a rather problematic idea: that she would make decisions as president differently because she is a woman. Surely she wasn’t intending to give credence to the idea that a woman’s menstrual cycles or hormones make her more volatile or emotional of a leader?
Liberal feminists have been insisting for years that concepts like gender are merely artificial constructs, and there are no real differences between boys and girls besides what society’s oppressive biases have imposed. So which is it, Madam Secretary? Would you approach the presidency just as your male predecessors? Or are you saying that we womenfolk just have different brains than the fellas?
Whether our next president is a man or a woman, whomever holds the job will be one of the most powerful decision makers on the planet, so how the candidates make decisions is absolutely relevant. If Clinton truly does believe the female brain would operate differently in the White House than a male brain, she owes it to the voters to explain her position why.
I’m not holding my breath waiting for Clinton to explain herself.
Fiorina again provides a stark contrast to Clinton. In countless interviews since launching her campaign, Fiorina has patiently given direct answers to questions about her controversial tenure at Hewlett-Packard. She hasn’t shied away from being accountable for both the good and the bad at that company, and Clinton finds it hard to admit that she has any culpability for the any of the problems in Syria, Iran, Russia or the Ukraine, and not to mention her absurdly duplicitous testimony at the House Select Committee on Benghazi this week.
Then there was the awkward moment when Clinton (once again) reminded the audience that not only was she a woman, but also that women take longer in the bathroom. After a commercial break, Cooper welcomed the candidates back, and Clinton apparently had been one of the last to return to the stage.
“Well, it does take me a little longer,” said Clinton. “That’s all I can say.”
When I was growing up in the 1980s, I had no shortage of strong female heroes. Sally Ride was going to outer space. Debbie Gibson was singing fun, positive songs. Mary Lou Retton was winning gold medals. The mother of the family who lived two doors down from us was a firefighter. My own mother had a Master's degree and emphasized that education was the way to make my dreams come true. I don’t remember ever being made to feel that I couldn’t do something just because I was girl. Even an overly earnest essay I wrote in middle school about wanting to be president when I grew up was met with zero skepticism.
Now, thirty years later, a woman who is the front-runner for her party’s nomination for president thinks she deserves our votes just because she’s a woman. And if we elect her, she’ll be a great leader, and make lots of great decisions...just as soon as she gets out of the ladies' room.
[All debate quotes from the Washington Post’s transcript of the debate, and any errors are theirs. Sitting through that debate once was enough for me.]