Hillary's Gender Bender

by Brian Solomon | 11/13/07 1:01am

Hillary Clinton, you have a choice to make. You can be a strong leader and forceful Democratic presidential candidate who stands as a credit to female equality in this country, or you can regress into a crybaby politician who hides behind her dresses and pantsuits.

Unfortunately for American voters everywhere, after the latest Democratic debate at Drexel University on Oct. 30, it appears that Senator Clinton has decided to take the latter road. In recent weeks cable news has christened Clinton the "unbeatable front-runner" and the "inevitable candidate;" it therefore came as no surprise when the other presidential hopefuls attacked her repeatedly on a number of issues ranging from health care and Iran to immigration reform and social security. Yet instead of standing steadily above the fray and accepting the criticisms with an unwavering resolve that had become so synonymous with her campaign, the former First Lady used campaign aides and surrogates to spin her rivals' political statements as deliberate harassment by male playground bullies.

Less than 24 hours after the debate, Clinton accepted the endorsement of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, where Union President Gerald McEntee presented Clinton with a pair of boxing gloves. "Six guys against Hillary," he said. "I'd call that a fair fight." While the words technically originated outside of the campaign, in today's world of artfully scripted politics, we can be sure that Clinton's advisors approved of McEntee's language. After all, the short speech reiterated a theme of "piling on" with gender connotations that Clinton's campaign adopted in the hours and days following her sub-par performance in Philadelphia.

On the same day as the boxing glove photo opportunity, Clinton's campaign emailed supporters and published a press release emphasizing the Senator's status in the campaign as "One Strong Woman" whom everyone else was "attacking," landing "jabs," and "piling on." Then on Thursday Nov. 1, Clinton spoke at Wellesley College, her alma mater and one of the original women's liberal arts colleges known as the Seven Sisters. There she joked about competing in "the all-boys' club of presidential politics."

As the first legitimate female candidate for president in this country's history, it is sad to see Senator Clinton spin her poor performance in the debate as an unfair attack, especially when implying a connection to her gender. She posted a video on her campaign website entitled, "The Politics of Pile On," which edited together footage from the latest debate to show every time the men "ganged up on her" with Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" playing in the background. In addition, popular former President Bill Clinton compared the remarks by his wife's rivals to the dishonest Swift Boat attack ads run against Senator John Kerry when he ran for President in 2004. Are you serious? When did legitimate policy criticisms in a debate -- which is, by definition, a formal discussion in which opposing arguments are put forward -- become the same as malicious and fraudulent attempts to sabotage a campaign?

Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman vice presidential candidate in 1984 and a Clinton supporter, said in The New York Times that the other candidates, "as well as the press, would never attack Barack Obama for two hours the way they attacked her." Clinton's campaign surrogate continued to talk about this supposed double standard, saying, "It's OK in this country to be sexist. It's certainly not OK to be racist." But imagine the public and media outcry if Obama, the leader in the polls of this hypothetical situation, played the race card and remarked after a poor showing in a debate that he's the "Strong Black Candidate" who is fighting in an "all-whites' club." Clinton, Obama and Bill Richardson (who is Hispanic) all work in admittedly difficult positions as minorities within a political sphere dominated by people who do not reflect the great diversity in our country. But that disadvantage does not give the candidates free license on which to blame their own shortcomings.

The bottom line is, Clinton cannot have it both ways. She can't play rough politics and portray herself as a leader who will take no prisoners, then drop the gender card at the first hint of problems -- especially when the attacks are far from personal. If Clinton fails to handle desperate jabs from candidates who are simply trying to catch up in the polls, how will she respond in real crises of international proportion? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad certainly will not tremble if our next president feigns sexism.