May
10th 2008
Clinton’s toughness

Posted under: American history, Gender, women's history

One of the things I came to admire this season about Hillary Clinton is her undeniable toughness.  When I reflected on all of the rotten, mean, and outrageous things that were said about her during her husband’s Presidential campaign and his Presidency (when after all she had no real power and yet was subject to the same calumny as her husband), it would have been understandable if she had decided to withdraw into retirement in 2001 after they left the White House.  But, she decided she was ready for more, running for the Senate in 2000, cruising to an easy re-election in 2006, and then running for the Presidency in 2007-08.  Her toughness is one of the reasons I caucused for her instead of Obama in February:  there’s nothing we don’t know about her, and she’s proved her ability to take a punch and swing right back.  That was a fatal flaw in John Kerry’s campaign in 2004:  he assumed his biography as a war hero and then war resister would give him an unchallengeable advantage over the lazy frat-boy President.  But, he was wrong, and because he didn’t hit back at Bush and against the Swift Boaters, he came close to beating Bush, but not close enough.  (And as they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.) 

In a New York Times column yesterday that I didn’t see until last night, Susan Faludi argues that it’s perhaps this toughness that has caused Clinton’s stock to rise among white male voters over the past few months, while Obama’s support from the same demographic has declined (h/t Talk Left.)  Now, let me say that I find the pundit class’s obsession with white male voters to be unseemly, especially in Democratic primaries when women are the majority of voters.  But it’s also offensive and obnoxious in general elections, too–as though white men (a minority in this country) are the only “regular people” (as Chris Matthews would have it), and the rest of us (who are after all the majority of Americans) are somehow irregular or abnormal Americans.  Faludi argues that Clinton’s success with white men is due to her shedding of the Carrie (or Carry) Nation-style of women-led political reform, which was in many ways an explicit attack on men’s rights and prerogatives.  If Faludi is right, then Clinton has indeed made a mark on American politics:  Her “strategy has certainly remade the political world for future female politicians, who may now cast off the assumption that when the going gets tough, the tough girl will resort to unilateral rectitude. When a woman does ascend through the glass ceiling into the White House, it will be, in part, because of the race of 2008, when Hillary Clinton broke through the glass floor and got down with the boys.”

But, I don’t see another woman candidate coming as close as Clinton did to a major party nomination, let alone the Presidency, for at least another twenty years.  I think Clinton was the last best hope for a woman President in my lifetime, and I’m not even 40 yet.  (American lives are all about second acts, so perhaps we haven’t seen the last of Clinton as Presidential candidate.  But, Democrats are cruel to their losers, and don’t give them second chances.)  I hope I’m wrong about everything I’ve written so far in this paragraph, but this primary season has been extremely discouraging because of the misogyny that has been revealed among so-called “progressives” and Democrats.  Clinton was a flawed candidate–so are they all.  Clinton made some early mistakes in strategy that in the end were probably unrecoverable.  But, it’s also undeniable that she has been treated with more contempt, derision, and condescension than any other candidate for the Presidency in recent American history.  And that really, really, really sucks. 

How do all of you mothers of daughters (and other feminists) feel about that?

15 Comments »

15 Responses to “Clinton’s toughness”

  1. GayProf on 10 May 2008 at 10:30 am #

    It seems extreme and overly pessimistic to say that we won’t see another woman candidate for an entire generation. Besides, historians make terrible fortune tellers.

    Another misstep of Clinton’s was that she depended upon the Democrats who constantly lost elections over the past thirty years. When the going got tough, she called in Mondale’s campaign strategist? Was she nuts?

    Annnyway, while I was never in love with Clinton (or Obama), I’ll miss her when she concedes.

  2. Sisyphus on 10 May 2008 at 7:14 pm #

    I agree that Clinton has dim chances of doing this all over again — Americans have a thing about picking “losers” in future elections. And there’s that study that says politicians have a “shelf life” of about 14 years or name recognition before Americans start rejecting them as having been around too long.

    I’ve heard promising things about Kathleen Sibelius, who some people were floating as a potential running-mate for Obama.

    But with the future hope, this is why we need a deep bench and keep working on getting women and people of color (including women people of color) elected and getting experience further down in the machinery — that’s what I keep reminding my students. And I’m not sure how big a deal breaking some gender or color line in the presidency is, anyway, compared to getting solid progressives into Congress and all the lower levels of staffing Bush has been filling with incompetent toadys for the past 8 or so years.

  3. Historiann on 10 May 2008 at 8:07 pm #

    Hi GayProf–you’re right, there’s a reason that we’re called historians and not futorians. But, if I may say so myself, I’ve had a pretty good track record in American politics since I started paying close attention about 12 years ago. When Bill Clinton was impeached, I said, “This is going to seem like a collosal exercise in asshattery much sooner than later.” When George W. Bush was given a total pass in 2000, while the prescient and thoughtful Al Gore was made out to be a serial liar and fabulist, I said the same thing. When GWB gave his speech on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 in front of the “Mission Accomplished” banner, I said, “Well, that seems more than a little premature, and in fact I think it will come back to haunt him.” (It did, but not enough, unfortunately.) Remember, it was 24 years in between Geraldine Ferraro’s 1984 run for the Vice Presidency and this year–and I don’t seriously think that things are so different in 2008 than they were in 1984.

    Both GayProf and Sisyphus ask reasonable questions about the value of “breaking the glass ceiling” in any case. I agree that they’re largely symbolic–but I still think that they matter. (Let’s look at the reverse: “it doesn’t really matter that Americans keep electing only white male presidents.” Does that sound right to you?) But, I certainly agree that one person’s political fortunes are not transformative–as I said in this post way back in another galaxy. The Democratc Party has a track record that’s only a tiny bit better than the Republican Party–and the next Democratic President must help cultivate and promote more non-white candidates and women candidates.

    I’m standing by my pessimism. I’ll be thrilled to be proved wrong, but as of now, I’m sticking to it.

  4. David on 10 May 2008 at 8:13 pm #

    Well, as the father of a daughter, I certainly hope that there will be many qualified and excellent female presidential candidates in my daughter’s lifetime, and I expect there will be. Clinton’s campaign is not a good indicator for this; she brought in all sorts of baggage to the campaign, and yet was the heavy favorite until January. By all accounts she’s run a pretty bad campaign that managed to right its own ship too late in the season. I don’t really see her campaign as having “advanced” anything in terms of women in politics, mainly because for her support she relied heavily on the Clinton name brand, her status as a Washington insider, and her support among older voters. The nature of her campaign seriously alienated an entire generation of younger Democratic voters who earlier had either positive or ambivalent feelings about her. (A lot of this has to do with her perceived “toughness,” which is really code for being able to sling partisan mud with Republicans.) This is exactly what the younger generation was NOT looking for in any candidate, male or female. And I would also submit that after the last eight years, especially the last four, “Swiftboating” will no longer work as a successful political tactic. It will appeal to the base while alienating independents. Let’s remember that all “Swiftboating” got Bush was a miniscule victory over a rather unremarkable candidate during the middle of a war. I think many people, especially Hillary Clinton, have been overestimating the effectiveness of the Republican smear machine in the post-Katrina era of American politics.

    I thought the New York Times editorial after her PA win was beyond ridiculous, and said so at the time. But really, her campaign, intentionally or not, had the effect of severely polarizing the electorate along lines of race, and that turned off a lot of people in the media, who fashion themselves as progressive on these matters. Clinton’s recent comments about her strong support among “hard working white Americans” has not helped this image, obviously. Ultimately, Clinton lost to Obama because, by the end, she couldn’t even generate 10 percent of the African American vote. It was blacks, not the media, who caused her downfall.

  5. Historiann on 11 May 2008 at 8:59 am #

    Lay off, David: you beat the bitch. Leave her alone now. Don’t be such a sore winner.

    I remain unconvinced that there is such a thing as an ideal woman Presidential candidate, or will ever be in the near future. Not because it will be her “fault,” she’ll just never be evaluated and judged fairly.

  6. Rad readr on 11 May 2008 at 12:35 pm #

    I would never count out Hillary!! It’s become clear that Obama is going to have a very time convincing certain people to vote for him, and the most effective way to neutralize some of the stuff thrown out him is to bring her on board.

    I think people would love and flock to the polls for Obama/Clinton. I look forward to having that bumper sticker on my car. And I have come to wonder if one of Clinton’s strategies is to set herself up as VP.

    I know a lot of Republican pundits are saying it will never happen. That’s the fear speaking. Obama/Clinton will be landslide.

  7. Historiann on 11 May 2008 at 3:02 pm #

    Interesting, Rad–you’re a unity ticket supporter! I always thought that if Clinton won the nominations she’d offer the VP to Obama–not sure he’d take it, but I think she would recognize his value and want to co-opt it. I don’t think it works the other way, and I don’t think he’ll do a unity ticket voluntarily, unless the Superdelegates extort it out of him. After trying to convince people that the Clinton years were just as bad as the Bush years, and telling everyone what lying scumbags both of the Clintons are, I don’t see him being nimble enough or self-confident enough to make her his VP. (Unless Bill drops dead from a massive MCI this summer–in which case, he might take her on, as a wounded warrior whose plight would draw out sympathy and affection, and quite possibly more votes. I think Obama is intimidated by Hillary Clinton, but he’s VERY intimidated by the prospect of a former president potentially hovering around his campaign and his presidency.)

    Incidentally, I don’t blame Obama for this, if this is indeed his thinking–I wouldn’t want the Clintons around either if I were trying to brand myself as the one true savior of Democratic politics. I think Obama is historically wrong to trash the Clintons along with the Bushes, but I understand his reasons for doing so.

  8. Indyanna on 11 May 2008 at 4:21 pm #

    I’m not sure how truly enthusiastic I’d be for this unity ticket, but I suspect it would bring me within the fold as a way to achieve some sort of closure to a bizarre year. Historiann’s MCI scenario recalls one of those over-the-top Latin American soap operas that Mario Vargas Llosa wrote about (and actually wrote!) years ago. The Big Dog may be needed in support of a unity ticket. The critical white males this fall may be cowboys and wellhead riggers on the Oil Shale Plateau, in those Northern Rockies caucus states where he could be sent instead of small town East.
    Back here in the played-out nooks of the Declaration of Independence Triangle, meanwhile, folks are polishing their bowling balls, circling calendars for “First Day Buck” (December 1 in Pa.), scrounging tickets for the Purdue game up in Happy Valley, and hoping for the best.

    Senatorella will need all of her toughness to continue working under the baleful scrutiny of the New York Times, which is taking vindictive second thoughts to new levels. The Editorial page is trotting out a columnist a day for gleeful, if demented, last whacks. The purloined midnight White House furniture seems to be the common theme. With endorsers like that, you’d soon enough long for the glory days of the Daily Worker and the East Village Other.

  9. Laurie9 on 12 May 2008 at 6:29 am #

    I read your blog via RSS, so I don’t often come to the site to comment. I am a 52 year old woman, and I consider myself a feminist. I agree with David’s comment; I don’t think he was being disrespectful of Hilary, nor was he advocating for an “ideal” female presidential candidate. I support Obama because he seems to embody more “feminist” qualities than Hilary does, in my opinion.

  10. Historiann on 12 May 2008 at 6:57 am #

    Hi Laurie–thanks for stopping by to comment. As I have said ad nauseum here, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to prefer Obama to Clinton. I’m just tired of Obama supporters who are apparently unable to refrain from complaining about what a horrible, disgusting monster Clinton is.

    How is Obama more feminist than Clinton? I’m interested to understand your thinking.

  11. Laurie9 on 12 May 2008 at 5:51 pm #

    You know, upon further reflection, I think what I meant was that he seems more “feminine” to me than she does– and I really do mean that as the highest compliment! I think Hilary has acted in ways to broadcast to the world how “macho” she can be, if necessary (obliterate Iran, e.g.). I realize that it’s political, that she may feel she has to overreact, and that it may be an act– but even if it is, I cannot feel good about a female candidate who cannot show her best side. It’s a sick country we live in, where the male candidate comes across as more compassionate, and less a part of the “old boys club”. Obama resonates with me, and Hilary does not. I do not think Hilary is a monster at all– but I also do not think her projected presidency is what America needs in 2008.

  12. Historiann on 12 May 2008 at 6:11 pm #

    Fair enough–although I would argue that it’s evidence of gender bias that we can give Obama credit for being “feminine,” but Clinton taking on masculine qualities is percieved by most people as a bad thing. I guess a girl can’t win!

  13. David on 12 May 2008 at 9:42 pm #

    Honestly, Historiann, as long as you keep deleting my comments, I’d like to know how what I put in my first comment on this thread was so deeply offensive. I certainly did not come here to “gloat” about anything, or to be a “sore winner.” Clinton’s “toughness” is clearly a double-edged sword; it makes people like and hate her. As for the gender angle of it, who was the last presidential nominee who was as tough as Clinton, in the way Clinton is, or rather has portrayed herself to be during this campaign? She tends to wear her toughness on her sleeve, in a way that her husband didn’t. By toughness, I mean the ability to convey the message that you will never back down from a political fight, no matter what. That’s Clinton’s toughness. To me it betrays an overcompensation of some sort, perhaps because she wants to appear manly, and thus, presidential. If so, I think she misjudged the voters. During this campaign she always appealed to me the most when she was more calm, more measured, more “feminine,” if that’s the word we have to use. But then, that’s also what appealed to me about Obama.

    On the other hand, a lot of this is just overanalysis. She would be the nominee now if she had just ditched Mark Penn from the get-go and prepared for the campaign to extend beyond Super Tuesday.

  14. GeekLove08 on 14 May 2008 at 6:07 am #

    I helped create the “Mad is Hell”
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    video along with IndyRobin.

    I created a NEW VIDEO: “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!”

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    It’s about Obama’s silence on sexism against Hillary Clinton and his own sexist remarks.

    If you approve of the video, I’d appreciate your help in spreading the video by creating a post on the video and ask that you and your readers go to youtube to RATE, COMMENT & mark FAVORITE the video.

    Thanks.

  15. Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » “Clinton’s Toughness” on 16 May 2008 at 12:30 pm #

    [...] That’s the title of a recent post by Historiann. Not a post to read if you are burned out on politics, or if you think Clinton is the Antichrist. It doesn’t do any Obama bashing, FWIW. [...]

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