She’s a popular senator, but how will she sell herself nationally?
LUIZA CH. SAVAGENovember132006
She’s a popular senator, but how will she sell herself nationally?
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
Hillary Rodham Clinton could be the first female president of the United States—that is, if women will let her. When she ran in 2000 for the hardly trailblazing role of 27th woman in the Senate, albeit the first from New York, the sisterhood nearly threw her to the wolves. Clinton knew to expect resistance from voters in the more conservative areas of upstate New York, but the reception she got from women—especially white baby boomers and moms in the suburbs—stunned the campaign. To say they had misgivings about the polished and pantsuited former first lady would be putting it charitably—“cutthroat,” “self-serving” and “backstabbing” were some of the nicer names in focus groups. But Clinton persevered, and after six years in office she stands on the verge of a re-election landslide. Her approval ratings among women are in the stratospheric 70 per cent range. “She’s beautiful, awesome,” gushed Kelli Williams, 37, a shopper in the upstate city of Rochester where Clinton was arriving for a campaign debate. “We need strong women in the political world.”
But with Clinton considering a presidential bid in 2008, will the prospect of a President Hillary elicit similar reservations as in 2000? “In 2000 she was a giant Rorschach test for so many different things,” recalls Dwight Jewson, a West Coast corporate advertising consultant brought in by the Clinton campaign then to unravel women’s complicated feelings about her. “People were reaching into their stereotypes about what women were.” Even liberal and intellectual women “were unconsciously colluding in that stereotype about strong women—that they are cold, unfeeling, manipulative types.”
For some women of her generation, Clinton wasn’t feminist enough: she stuck by him, she was an “enabler,” willing to endure humiliation to ride her philandering husband’s political coattails. For others she was too feminist. Suburban moms found her too tough—they felt she wouldn’t let them empathize with her even if they had wanted to. Transcripts of two focus groups held byjewson’s team in June 2000 were published by journalist Michael Tomasky in his book, Hillary’s Turn. Participants said things like, “She’s cold,” “She’s very cunning, independent.” One woman complained, “You get the sense that she doesn’t think like a woman. She
thinks like a man.” Another fretted that, “If you differ with Hillary Clinton, she is going to nail you and squash you.” It added up to a perception that “she doesn’t represent me as a woman.” Above all, women wanted to see some vulnerability, humility, or as one said, “The human side of Hillary Clinton. We really don’t know who Hillary Clinton is.” Six years later, she has done almost nothing to reveal her “human side.” She is disciplined and scripted in public—but that no longer seems to matter. Pollsters at Manhattanville College conducted in-depth polls of women’s perceptions of Clinton in September 2000, and asked the same questions again this October. They reported that women’s thoughts about Clinton “have changed dramatically for the positive.” In 2000, more white women had an unfavourable view (47
per cent) than favourable (45 per cent); now her favourable number is up to 64 per cent. She leads her Republican opponent, former Yonkers mayor John Spencer, 67 to 22 per cent among all women, and 68 to 23 in the suburbs. She still doesn’t give anyone the warm-and-fuzzies—only 28 per cent call her “warm and likeable”—but the most usual descriptions are “intelligent,” “hard-working” and “persistent.” Critics still call her things like “snake,” but more common are positive spins on the earlier power-hungry image: “She fights for what she really wants. She’s tough and can play with the big boys.”
How did she do it? Just before her debate with Spencer in Rochester, the front page of that city’s Democrat and Chronicle noted that in 2000 she had pledged to bring 200,000 new jobs to upstate New York. Since then,
the Rochester area alone lost 35,000 jobs. But people were clearly grateful that she had tried—on jobs, and issues from Lake Ontario wave erosion to expanding markets for local produce and wines. That seems to have been enough. Anne Lloyd, a 50-year-old sales consultant, reflected on her change of heart toward Clinton at a fraying downtown Rochester shopping plaza. “I had reservations about her, that she didn’t know the state, that she was opportunistic.” But Clinton impressed her with attention to local economic woes in
a county that had voted against her in 2000. Lloyd cited a conference where Clinton brought together oil company executives to discuss high-tech jobs in alternative energy. “She’s done well. She talks about jobs a lot.”
While Clinton’s hyper-local approach has worked in New York, it remains to be seen how she can market herself nationwide. New York women no longer seem to believe that Clinton needs to represent them “as women” to represent them as voters. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the country is ready to separate Clinton the political wonk from Clinton the woman—without finding the second half of the equation wanting.
Take Elizabeth Edwards, the matronly spouse of boyish presidential wannabe John Edwards, who ran with John Kerry in 2004 and could be one of Clinton’s chief rivals for the 2008 Democratic nomination. Edwards cheerfully accompanied her husband on the campaign trail two years ago, with their two adorable late-in-life preschool children. Only after the election did she disclose she’d been
diagnosed with breast cancer during the campaign. This month, Edwards spoke at a luncheon sponsored by Ladies Home Journal, and sounded like Clinton’s baby boomer critics in 2000: “She and I are from the same generation. We both went to law school and married other lawyers, but after that we made other choices. I think my choices have made me happier. I think I’m more joyful than she is.” Edwards quickly apologized— but her words evoked the culture-combat days when Clinton struggled to live down her quip that she was “no Tammy Wynette standing by her man,” or that she chose her career over staying home to “bake cookies.”
MANY WOMEN SAID THEY WANTED TO SEE HER HUMAN SIDE. EVEN NOW, SHE STILL HASN’T SHOWN IT.
Just as it looked like Clinton could get back to campaigning on questions of war and jobs, her opponent, Spencer, made an issue of her womanly qualities. “You ever see a picture of her back then? Whew— I don’t know why Bill married her,” he said to a reporter from the New York Daily News on a plane. A recovered alcoholic who looks every day of his 59 years, Spencer added that the senator “looks good now” and must have had “millions of dollars of work” in plastic surgery. When his comments became news, he first denied them. Then he owned up and gave a taste of what Clinton has to look forward to if she runs in 2008: “As long as I don’t say she’s a lesbian, I’m okay.”
Optimists like Jewson say Clinton’s work in the Senate will define her, should she run for president. “I think her record as a successful bipartisan senator will trump.” Maurice Carroll, the director of the Polling Institute at Quinnipiac University, who has polled extensively on Clinton, says he’s never believed she had a woman problem. “What women said and what women did were two different things.” For all the criticism of her personal life, he notes, “All my women friends blathered about it endlessly and didn’t do a damn thing about it.” That’s not to say she won’t face image problems. In a recent poll, Carroll asked New Yorkers whether Clinton could translate her success upstate to the red states. Democrats said yes, Republicans said no. If she runs, he predicts, Monica-gate will be dredged up, and there will also “be pictures of her in those granny glasses back at Radcliffe. That’s how politics is done.”
During the Rochester debate, Clinton and Spencer were asked whether America is ready for a woman president. “Absolutely!” said Spencer, whose critique of Clinton is based largely on the accusation that she will be too busy running for president to serve the state. Clinton was more cautious. “That will be up to America... It depends... I’m not going to speculate on that.” M
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