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Pundits should probably just pack it in. They were wrong about Senator John McCain (R.-Ariz.) when they pronounced his campaign dead a few months ago. They were wrong (twice) about Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) when they thought he could never win Iowa and then thought he could never lose New Hampshire. They were wrong about Senator Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) ability to rebound after Iowa. They failed to understand former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s surge. They have pretty much been wrong about the entire process.
As an opinion columnist on the elections, however, I might be placed into the “pundit” category, and I certainly wouldn’t want to upset the apple cart. So, allow me to opine for a moment.
Don’t let New Hampshire results convince you otherwise; America’s conception of leadership is still very sexist. Why was it a huge deal that Hillary cried on Monday? Why do female politicians have to keep their hair cut short? When was the last time a female leader wore a skirt or dress?
Though it’s hard to know what actually goes through someone’s head when he or she casts a vote or makes a statement, I would venture to say that Hillary was a champion of the War in Iraq at the beginning—and has since refused to acknowledge that her vote was a mistake—in part because she needs to appear strong and decisive as a female candidate.
Maybe Clinton has been forced to appear robotic and calculated because of the old double standard: Were she to show emotion the same way her husband did (cue lip bite, squint, statement of empathy), voters would discount her as too weak to be president.
Try to think of any female political leader who actually did speak in soaring political rhetoric like Obama, or who used personal anecdotes the way Senator John Edwards does.
Can’t? Though I don’t doubt Obama has more natural charisma than Hillary, could she effectively use whatever charm she might have and still appear presidential? Who was the last female political leader able to inspire the masses? Barbara Jordan never had broad nationwide appeal. Eleanor Roosevelt never ran for office in her own right. Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Mary Robinson, and Benazir Bhutto might have been described as inspirational, but mostly as a result of their strength of character and iron will in the face of war and other major crises.
Once Hillary proved her mettle as a tough lady, the pendulum swung the other way and she is now seen as cold, mechanical, and uncaring.
When she cried on Monday, the first question to be raised was whether or not it was genuine. In the aftermath, however, almost every news story characterized the moment as a meltdown. Headlines read “Hillary Clinton Gets Emotional.” It was compared to Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s “scream” in 2004, and to Senator Ed Muskie’s “emotional moment” in the 1972 New Hampshire primary.
After she won the N.H. primary, pundits were quick to point to her emotional moment as the reason for the upset victory. Maureen Dowd’s column the morning after the primary was titled, “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?” It was said that middle-aged and older women, who formed 57 percent of the voters in the Democratic primary—and who voted for her 46 percent to 34 percent over Obama—were touched by the moment and upset about the extra scrutiny Hillary has received as a woman.
The pundits are probably wrong again. Clinton won New Hampshire because she was able to turn out the traditional Democratic base in her favor. She won self-identified Democrats, low-income voters, older voters, Catholic voters, urban and suburban voters, voters from union families, and voters who felt financially stressed.
In the end, I wonder why Hillary has been able to do so well in the first place. Sure she’s smart, has a decent amount of experience, and has proven herself a capable senator.
But the same thing could be said for Senator Chris Dodd, Senator Joe Biden, and Governor Bill Richardson. But she is atop the polls while the others are mere footnotes in this election. Similarly, John Edwards has great name recognition after his 2004 run, about the same amount of experience as Clinton, and is seen as more likable by most voters, but his demise is fairly certain.
I’d argue that Hillary is a front-runner because she’s a woman. Name recognition from her years in the White House certainly helps, but ultimately the media has focused on her from day one (like Obama) because of the historic potential of her candidacy. Women form the majority of voters in the primary and general elections. Women are seen as more able to deal with problems of health care and education. Perhaps it is simply her connection to her husband, widely seen as a better president than Bush, and the nostalgia associated with those years that has propelled her candidacy, but if she were a man, I just don’t think she would be a contender.
So don’t cry for Hillary just yet. It may be this unjust sexist world we live in that is keeping her strong in this election.
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