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Clinton and Gender Politics No Simple Matter

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Carly Fiorina has evidently hired herself as hit woman going after Hillary Clinton and her likely run for president. Fiorina is former chief of Hewlett-Packard and onetime Republican candidate for Senate from California. The thinking is that as a formidable woman, she can go after Clinton without being called a sexist male.

Republicans understand correctly that they have a problem attracting female voters and that Clinton is a special case, even next to other female politicians. Clinton has paid a lot of attention to gender equity issues and has weathered decades of sexist attacks, not only from the right but from some backers of her Democratic foes; recall the nastiness of her unsuccessful race against Barack Obama for the 2008 nomination.

As a result, Clinton has an army of women, especially older ones, watching her back. But within this set of facts lie dangers for those who misread the feelings about Hillary.

Some women no doubt yearn for a first female president, but more, I'd venture, simply regard Clinton as the strongest candidate, in intellect and in experience. For decades, they've seen her pelted by disrespect tinged with sexist ridicule, the latest incarnation being an obsession with her age not applied to potential male candidates of similar vintage. That's what has her supporters fuming.

Thus, the assumption that these women would respond warmly to any woman thrown in their face registers as insulting. Such simplistic thinking has gotten Republicans in trouble. It led to the disastrous nomination of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate in 2008. The scariness of having the grossly unqualified Palin one heartbeat away from the presidency may have cost McCain the election.

The gender gap is based on differing worldviews. There is little in Fiorina's conservative agenda that would appeal to the women who got Obama elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. And assuming that her being female is enough to go on opens all kinds of possibilities for Republicans to put their foot in it.

For instance: Republican strategist Ron Stutzman recently told the media that Fiorina could be a "very effective critic of Hillary, which Republicans are going to need." He added that "obviously there is a space for a very articulate, conservative woman."

Only one? Why not two?

Speaking for myself, I don't buy into the ludicrous idea that it's anyone's "turn" to be president. Nor do I believe in the need for a "transformational figure" embodying a gender, race or religion that hasn't presided in the Oval Office before. May the most competent human serve all of us.

I backed Clinton for the 2008 nomination because I thought she had the best ideas and best preparation for the job. When Obama became the nominee, I supported him -- not because he is African-American but because of his brainpower and moderate politics.

Nowadays, I'd like to hear more from former Navy secretary and senator from Virginia Jim Webb, another Democrat who's shown interest in the race. And there's always a chance, however tiny, that Republicans will come up with a presidential candidate whom I would vote for. It's happened before.

When it comes to assumptions about female candidates' appeal to female voters, Democrats should watch their language as much as Republicans. In response to the support Republican men have expressed for Fiorina's crusade, prominent Democrat Ann Lewis said, "These guys really believe it's unfair that women are now running."

Don't go there, Democrats. Republicans aren't attacking Clinton because they think it's unfair women are running for president. They're going after her because she's strong and tough enough to be a serious threat. Clinton has earned the right to be a threat.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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