Monday :: Sep 17, 2007

Hillary Clinton: It Takes A Woman - and A Village


by eriposte

I have no favorite in the Democratic primary. Barring unusual circumstances, it is unlikely that I will have a favorite candidate before the end of the primaries. That said, I do believe a few things need to be said about Senator Hillary Clinton. No, I'm not talking about the fact that she has of late warmed up to the netroots, that her campaign was a vocal supporter of Daily Kos and the netroots against Fox News' fraudulent charges, that she was one of the early supporters of groups like Media Matters and the Center for American Progress, or that she has been endorsed by netroots-hero former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and another netroots-hero General Wesley Clark. Oh, it's not about her health care plan, either.

I'm talking about the significant implications of the fact that she is a very accomplished, intelligent, strong and capable woman who has long been in the midst of strong, aggressive, sometimes chauvinistic men in Congress and been a long time target of the vast Republican misinformation machine.

1. Strong woman meets powerful, insecure men

There has always been a glass ceiling for women. That the U.S. has never ever elected a female President is an indicator that the ceiling is particularly high when it comes to Presidential politics. Breaking the ceiling can be a challenging exercise even for strong and accomplished women because of insecure men in positions of power who cannot deal with them. Women sometimes have to do a lot more and appear stronger than a man in a comparable position to command the same amount of respect or achieve the same career success. Yet, women who do even the exact same things that most men do are sometimes portrayed negatively despite and because of that. According to this portrayal, when a man does it, it is a sign of self-confidence, vision, and strength of character but when a woman does it, it is the opposite - she's labeled cold, harsh, calculating, overbearing, or non-feminine.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that Senator Clinton has long been portrayed in the media as having a somewhat cold or calculating persona who would do anything to stay in power - even if it meant compromising on her principles. Whether that portrayal is in fact accurate every time has barely been explored and some progressives, who are otherwise skeptical of media narratives about Democrats, seem to buy into it.

2. Strong woman meets the vast and powerful Republican misinformation machine

The American media has been dominated by conservatives for at least a couple of decades, if not more. Soon after former President Bill Clinton and then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in D.C., Clinton-hatred became the de facto operating philosophy of the self-crowned media elite in the country. In a real capitalist democracy, the enormously fraudulent campaign by the American media elite against the Clintons would have been sufficient to forever banish most of the offenders - the so-called "journalists", "reporters", "editors", op-ed columnists and all the other gasbags on radio and TV, especially in the Beltway, who participated in it - from the media. However, the obvious lack of an efficient capitalist structure in the United States, due to the conservative dominance over the traditional media, meant that fraud, incompetence and lying about the Clintons and Democrats was actually rewarded - especially during the second half of Bill Clinton's presidency when the American public overwhelmingly rejected the false traditional media coverage. The result was that Sen. Clinton was dealt a double-whammy. She was in the unfortunate position of:

  • Being a strong woman detested by powerful, sometimes insecure, often conservative men in Congress, and
  • Being irrationally hated by the even more insecure charlatans occupying powerful positions in the media

Consequently, Senator Clinton was also caricatured, especially in the Republican propaganda outlets, as an untrustworthy, scaaaary and icky socialist, who would return America to the 'dark ages' aka Old Europe. The story of this portrayal - which reflects in her unfavorables in opinion polls - has barely been revealed to the American public at large and thanks to the political incompetence of the Democratic party, few conservatives or independents are probably aware of the full story.

(NOTE: It did not help Sen. Clinton that she screwed up badly during the healthcare debacle of the early 90s, and then suffered the triple-whammy of having to deal with President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and its very unpleasant and very public aftermath. I don't know about you, but how does one recover from all of this? It's not easy by any means.)

3. A missing element in common portrayals of Hillary Clinton

Look, I am not about to argue in this post that Senator Clinton is the most progressive candidate for President, because she isn't. I am also not going to argue that you should support her for President over the other Democratic candidates like Senator Edwards, Senator Obama, Governor Richardson, Senator Dodd, Senator Biden, etc. This post is not about who you should support. It is about bringing a sense of proper perspective and fair play into how we think about female candidates - particularly Sen. Clinton - and what we, the internet 'village' of progressives, need to do to make sure that voters at large get the same perspective.

Enormous vested interests in Washington, D.C. and in the media have spent years and years painting a picture of Sen. Clinton as being cold and calculating or as being untrustworthy and a slimeball -- or all of the above. I submit that as progressives, we have not done enough to fight these portrayals or caricatures - and have not always made it a point to find out if those portrayals are in fact true. If we spent as much time fact-checking portrayals of Sen. Clinton as we did fact-checking portrayals of former Vice President Al Gore, we might perceive Senator Clinton more positively than we do today. We may still choose to sometimes disagree with her policy positions and tactics, and perhaps strongly so, but at least we could help force a more balanced perspective in the media about her personality and character. Given the mountains of horse manure the Republicans and their surrogates are about to dump on her and her fellow Democrats over the next year, this is critically important.

I readily admit that Senator Clinton unfortunately compounded the challenge she faces by her occasional, serious mistakes - like her vote for the 2002 Iraq resolution - that provided fodder for allegations that she was calculating, rather than principled. It also hasn't helped that she has or had some senior advisors who have lived through the last few years as if they were in the early 1990s - advisors who seem adamant on applying poor judgment or implementing out-of-date and out-of-place "triangulation" solutions to the burning problems of the day. The net result was that, earlier this year, I found that even progressives who would otherwise have been inclined to look at her very favorably, had serious questions about her and her candidacy. I heard some well-meaning progressives tell me personally that they felt she was harsh or cold or calculating or that they couldn't stand her and had a hard time supporting her as a candidate for President over someone like Obama or Edwards. Of course, some progressives still feel that way even today.

However, here's what's interesting. There is anecdotal evidence that people who either talk to her one on one or those who have seen her in some of the Democratic Presidential debates a few times, emerge with a more positive picture of her. I have, of course, never met her and I know nothing more about her than what I can gather from telecasts of her public appearances and articles about her. Yet, even I, after watching her in some of the debates, felt much more comfortable about her as a person and as a candidate than what I had felt early this year. I can only imagine how independents or low-information voters must be perceiving her, when it took me (a person who is arguably better informed on Clinton and her portrayals in the media) some level of repeated exposure to her through the debates - without a media filter - to learn enough about her real persona to make me more comfortable about her and her candidacy.

Here, for example, is an observation by Cunning Realist - who is a thoughtful and honest conservative from what I can tell - back in May 2007:

While traveling during the past week, I visited a longtime friend who recently met Hillary Clinton. The event was private and exclusive -- only a few dozen business leaders attended, along with some spouses. Hillary spoke, took questions, then met with everyone personally.

During the Q & A session, the executives asked her some complex questions about technology, international trade, globalization, etc. My friend said her responses were in-depth and extremely intelligent. He was also impressed by the personal interest she took in everyone during the meet and greet session; she spent a few minutes speaking with each person individually, frequently asking questions that indicated she both listened to and thought about their comments.

According to my friend, a political independent who has never been particularly fond of Hillary, she was a huge hit. He went home ready to vote for her, and he sensed others in the audience felt the same way. His exclamation "She's smart!" might show how low expectations have fallen during the past six years, but it's also a pithy indication that mindless single-issue swagger -- on display during parts of the recent Republican candidate debates, unfortunately -- may be decidedly unfashionable in 2008.

As one of the commenters to the above post observed:

This is why I think she can win. Mind you, I am not sure of whom I will support just yet, but I had the opportunity to meet her in New York 5 years ago, and she was very nice, and interested in what I had to say.

As a 23 year old at the time, simply to have a U.S. Senator express an interest in my thoughts about AmeriCorps (I was an AmeriCorps member at the time) was shocking.

I had already met Senator John Kerry, and he attempted to be one of the boys, asking me about the Red Sox game. Too bad for him, I'm a Yankees fan, so I actually said, "I don't know, Senator, but I hope they lose tonight."

Anyway, I digress. Hillary's a real human being, one that takes the time to listen to what you have to say, and responds to it without resorting to canned answers.

Wouldn't it be nice to have someone like that back in the White House?

And another:

A co-worker of mine has a family connection that is involved (at a fairly high level) in NY state politics. A staunch Republican, he echoes the comments of your friend - I get the sense it pains him to admit it, but he apparently has tremendous respect for her.

In fact, here are two other comments in the same comment thread that provide a classic example of what I have been discussing in this post (emphasis mine):

Gus said...

That she's extremely intelligent should be obvious. What bothers people (including me) about her is her naked ambition. She seems to be utterly unwilling to say anything that isn't scripted and focus group tested. Not that that makes her different from any other candidate. I'd vote for her.

Anonymous said...

The common criticism of Hillary Clinton: "What bothers people (including me) about her is her naked ambition."

Like most myths perpetrated over the last 14 years, Senator Clinton's naked ambition is largely a product of the Republican smear machine, and - let's be honest - male chauvinism. I mean, any woman who aspires to be a senator of New York AND, God forbid, the President of the United States can't be interested in public service. There must be ulterior motives.

Take Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example. Here's a guy loaded with ambition. Ambition literally leaks out the man's pores. Yet I don't hear anyone criticizing him for it.

HINT TO THE WISE: ALL presidential candidates are remarkably ambitious people, whether you're male or female, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Just to seriously consider running for the most powerful office in the land, not to the mention the rest of the planet, and feel that your ideas, leadership, and skills are up to the task is unquestionably ambitious by its very defintion.

4. It takes a Progressive Village

Here's the challenge Sen. Clinton faces - and what we face as progressives, especially if she wins the Democratic nomination for President.

A large percentage of currently Democratic leaning voters not only don't know the truth about the portrayals of Sen. Clinton's personality and character, they will also not be able to meet her one on one or watch her in action long enough or frequently enough on TV - without the media filter - to be influenced positively by her.

That is a problem we need to address. Not because it is our duty to support her over the other Democratic candidates. I certainly hope that Senator Clinton becomes more and more progressive and feels comfortable enough to move in that direction with the confidence that we will have her back. But, this is not about whether she is the most progressive candidate for President. Support who you will. The issue is whether progressives are willing to step up and tackle the disadvantages she faces because of the fact that she is a strong and accomplished woman who faces a double-whammy in the public sphere. There are other women, even more progressive ones, who will continue to face challenges similar to that faced by Sen. Clinton, albeit at a lower magnitude. What we do to address Sen. Clinton's disadvantages in the public sphere will, in my mind, help all other progressive women everywhere.

So, if we want to call ourselves progressives, I humbly submit that we have a responsibility to make sure that the portrayals of Sen. Clinton are fair. It is also our responsibility to educate our friends and family about what is and what is not true regarding Sen. Clinton. I have found limited evidence that if I engage progressives who have a negative impression of her on a debate about the justification behind their perceptions - and explain to them the double-whammy she has faced and continues to face - then, those people might be willing to acknowledge that their perceptions may, at least in part, not be justified.

I remember reading a post sometime recently about how Senator Clinton's campaign is focusing more on women than men (at FDL, perhaps?). My experience is that women do seem to resonate more with her than men do. At one level that makes obvious sense. Women know better than men what they have to go through to be successful. Women probably also have more of an open mind when it comes to understanding her, her words and her actions - given everything she has gone through. If you think it's not easy to become a successful female business executive or Congresswoman or Senator in the U.S., it's an order or magnitude more difficult to be successful as a female candidate for President of the United States. I suspect women, more than men, understand why this is the case and therefore will resonate better with Senator Clinton than men do. That's understandable, but we have a responsibility to make sure that both men and women get to know who she really is - not just who the media portrays her to be based on vested or anonymous interests.

Today's political environment, especially in a fear-stoked, conservative-dominated media landscape, places women in politics at an inherent disadvantage because of implicit stereotypes about women and their ability to lead in times of threats to national security. The very fact that there is even a debate (!) about whether a woman is fit to be President of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief of the Unites States Armed Forces is a symptom of a stereotype that has been somewhat pervasive in American society. As progressives, it is our responsibility to destroy even implicit negative stereotypes about women and challenge people to go beyond such stereotypes in evaluating who is and who isn't qualified to be President of the United States. General Wesley Clark's endorsement of Senator Clinton (Matt Stoller's comments on its significance are worth reading), I think goes a long way to help reverse some such stereotypes. Regardless of whether Senator Clinton is the best Democratic candidate for President, it is in the best interests of the progressive movement to use every such endorsement as a way to further the cause of women and, by extension, the progressive movement.

Let me close by saying that I am comforted with the knowledge that Brad DeLong has definitely changed his views on Sen. Clinton, 4+ years later.

P.S. I am not a woman and I can't claim to speak for women. However, I am lucky enough to know some strong and smart women - including one who is much smarter than I am (my wife) - and I have learnt a lot from them and will continue to learn a lot from them.

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