Monday, November 5, 2007

"Piling On" And The Gender Card

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 441

The New York Times is running a fascinating article today on the dynamics of gender in the race for the Democratic nomination for president. The focus is on last week's Drexel debate and the - ahem - vigorous questioning directed at Hillary Clinton, mainly by John Edwards, and, to a lesser degree, Barack Obama.

One of the most telling points in the article is that both supporters and opponents of Senator Clinton accuse each other of playing "the gender card;" supporters say that Edwards and others are sexist when "piling on" Clinton because she's the lone woman in an otherwise all-male field of candidates, and opponents claim that Hillary herself is playing the gender card by invoking charges of sexism in response to the questioning at the debate.

The article's best quote, illustrating how convoluted the entire argument is on both sides, comes from 1984 vice-president nominee Geraladine Ferraro:

“We can’t let them do this in a presidential race,” she said. “They say we’re playing the gender card. We are not. We are not. We have got to stand up. It’s discrimination against her as a candidate because she is a woman.”

As it happens, I saw the NYT article after trading some emails over the weekend with a senior aide to one of Clinton's Democratic rivals regarding last week's debate.

"Apparently, the Clinton campaign can't even get its story straight on 'piling on,'" one email began. "As with everything else, they're trying to have it both ways.

"'Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday her status as the Democratic presidential front-runner - not her gender - has led her male primary rivals to intensify their criticism of her.' [AP, 11/2/07]

"'Hillary Rodham Clinton played the gender card Thursday after the worst stumble of her campaign, suggesting she's being singled out as the lone woman in an all-male presidential field.' [Newsday, 11/1/07]"

Interesting, I thought. I wrote back, "So, in your view, which is the real reason: that she's the frontrunner, or that she's a woman?"

The senior aide's answer: "Neither, as I don't think anyone was 'picking' on her. There were critical issues raised during the debate that deserved to be answered. In order to meet the challenges we face as a nation, the next president is going have to provide principled leadership and speak with clarity if he or she expects to bring people together to produce results for the American people. Unfortunately, Senator Clinton, when asked direct questions, didn't answer quite as directly."

I find myself inclined to agree with this view. No one is exempt - nor should be - from being pressed to provide specific answers to direct questions regarding the issues at stake in this campaign. The next president will come into office under the harshest and most skeptical gaze ever directed toward this country and its leadership, both at home and around the world. Crying "foul," on any basis, simply won't meet the requirements of the office in our time.

The irony of all this is that Hillary Clinton has, throughout her public life, proven herself tougher in the face of criticism than any of her contemporaries of either gender. To have Clinton's campaign and supporters raise gender now as a defense after a poor performance in a single debate ill-serves both the candidate and the progress she embodies.

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