Hillary Rodham Clinton, smart, experienced, sure-handed. "Help make history!" her Web site says. So how come the response has been so guarded? Where are the cheers and the confetti?I think that the problem Hillary Clinton faces and Quindlen describes in general terms can be brought out in an example from my life.
The truth is that Senator Clinton has a woman problem, but it's not the one we all might have envisioned decades ago. Certainly there may be Americans who covertly balk at the notion of a female president, despite what they may tell pollsters. And every time Clinton is described as calculating or ambitious, you realize that such words are never used for male politicians because for them both traits are assumed—and accepted. Old habits die hard. In the first Republican presidential debate, moderator Chris Matthews asked the contenders how they would feel about having Bill Clinton back in the White House. In a single sentence he turned the Democratic front runner into the Little Woman, a mere adjunct to her husband.
And of course there is that immovable group who have long hated Hillary Clinton for reasons too psychologically complex to be deconstructed, the people who wouldn't vote for her if she were running against Osama bin Laden. But in some weird fashion, the woman thing, as we like to call it, is playing a larger role among her natural supporters than her opponents. When we imagined a woman president we imagined a new day, a new strategy, a new vision and new tactics. Even when we said it was unfair to hold women to a higher standard than their male counterparts, in our hearts we did, whether they were running companies (more family-friendly policies and humane workplace conditions), editing newspapers (human-interest and service stories) or practicing medicine (patient contact and engagement).
But with Senator Clinton's candidacy, the brand new is the same old, revolution and throwback simultaneously. She has been part of the political scene for so long that an entire generation of girls have grown up never knowing a world without Hillary, front and center. Although opponents like to paint her as a liberal and a feminist, she is above all a pragmatist; she knows how a campaign is run, the well-oiled machine that must support the standard-bearer. In her case the machine is so well oiled and she is so polished, so practiced, that authenticity seems to have fallen by the wayside. The fantasy was that the first woman president would be someone who would turn the whole lousy system inside out and upside down. Instead the first significant woman contender is someone who seems to have the system down to a fine art.
My wife, a Democrat, will probably vote for Hillary Clinton, in large part because my wife believes that more women need to be in positions of power. A not unreasonable premise and one I could support if I thought Clinton's positions were ones I could at least tolerate. However, my wife, for all her smarts will sometimes overlook candidate positions on issues of importance to her, i.e. family policy, abortion, taxes and education, if it means getting more women elected. This is not to say my wife lacks committment to her principles, rather she places the principle of gender equity higher than other matters.
On the other hand is our friend Lori, whom I love and adore and whose liberal sensibilities are embodied in Hillary Clinton, almost to a perfect fit. At least insofar as it is the Hillary Clinton the presidential candidate and not Hillary Clinton the pragmatic Senator. Lori could very well vote for Osama Bin Laden before Hillary Clinton. She has stated emphatically, "I will never vote for Hillary Clinton. I would rather not vote than vote for her." When asked why, Lori's answer is direct--she is not a woman who has made it on her own.
In the positions of my wife and our friend and the melding of the two comes the core of Hillary Clinton's woman problem. Part of her appeal is the "first woman" matter, as the first woman with a real shot of occupying the Oval Office, Hillary Clinton is banking on a demographic that supports her only because she is one of them. It is not that she is the best or most capable (which she may be among the Democratic candidates) but it is that she is the first and her positions and politics don't matter that much. The problem with this appeal is that it is not hard core. My wife will vote because she believes it to be her duty, but for many of the "because she is the first" crowd, the impetus to vote is not as hard wired as it is in my wife, Hillary's demographic appeal on this level may not be enough to carry the day.
At the same time, Hillary Clinton is not a "feminist" choice in that her success is derived more from her marriage than from her own fortitude. Lori's problem is that she views Hillary Clinton as derivative of Bill Clinton and Lori didn't like Bill Clinton. To Lori, the fact that Hillary knew of his philandering and did nothing to either correct the matter or to dump him indicates to Lori that Hillary Clinton is not her own woman, but needs to have Bill Clinton around to shore her up. Lori feels that absent Bill's presence, Hillary Clinton would likely have never won the New York Senate race in 2000 and would have been at best a mediocre lawyer somewhere. It is not that Hillary Clinton is calculating or ambitious, it is that Hillary Clinton appears incapable of life without Bill. Part of this is, admittedly, a problem crated by the media, but in politics appearances matter. Hillary can't afford to not have Bill in the picture, since he is a worthy surrogate, but even in the surrogate role, he overshadows her and reinforces the perception that she cannot be without him.
In short, Hillary Clinton's appeal as the first viable woman is not enough to overcome her reliance upon her husband. Her success is because of her husband, not in spite of her husband. That is Hillary's problem.