Members Only | April 11, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Can a Woman Win?

We can't know till we try.

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Part of me understands why some leading feminists are skeptical of whether a woman can be elected president. Hillary Clinton, the most qualified nominee of my lifetime, was smeared into electoral oblivion by Donald Trump and his sexist grotesquerie.

It’s not just elites, of course. New York’s Ed Kilgore wrote Wednesday that women “seem to have internalized the Clinton defeat as being about sexism far more than men have.” Ed cited Pew: “Some 45 percent of Americans say that voters not being ready to elect a woman to higher office is a major barrier to female political leadership, up from 37 percent in 2014. This change has come almost entirely among women.”

Now, 57 percent of women say this is a major reason why there are fewer women than men in high political offices; four years ago, about four-in-ten women (41 percent) said the same.

Part of me is frustrated, though.

I mean, the GOP and the right-wing media will attack no matter what. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of sludge is about to be mainlined into the body politic starting in a few months. Even Joe Biden won’t be immune to it. In many ways, who the Democrat is is almost beside the point. What matters to Republican propagandists, and the Russian operatives helping them, is having a target to aim at. It’s that simple.

The GOP and its billionaire allies are prepared to spend any sum to defeat the Democrat, even if that means turning the public square into a dump.

Still, brass tacks is brass tacks. Given the depth of apprehension among women, Democrats, and party elites, Ed sorted through a few cold-blooded strategies.

One, sit out 2020.

If a man is what it takes to beat Trump, you could argue it’s “worth delaying the presumably inevitable breakthrough of the First Woman President.” (Ed cites the “Supreme Court revoking reproductive rights [and] an unleashed Trump wreaking even more havoc at home and abroad.”) Then again, Ed said, “a strong Democratic tide heading into 2008 certainly helped give Democrats the courage to nominate an African-American.” Given the result the 2018 midterms, in which women ran for and won office in record number, we may be experiencing one of those blue tides.

I think we are. Women, especially women of color, are now the Democratic base. The party has also made inroads into the white suburban women demographic thanks to Trump. Yes, there is a certain level of “demobilization” going on, as Matt Yglesias has written. But I think Erik Loomis is right. Elites get cold feet; activists don’t. So a female nominee may have an advantage against a serial philanderer who has paid a fortune to silence mistresses and who has taken infants away from their immigrant mothers. And remember that Clinton, for all her faults, won 3 million more votes than Trump did. The trick is getting those votes to distribute in a favorable direction.  

Two, let the Republican Party nominate a woman first.

Ed said: “if Democrats knew that was going to happen, they might then nominate a woman of their own and guarantee a breakthrough.” But that, Ed concedes, is based on an assumption, a big one: that the Republicans will see the error of their ways, and thus try expanding their narrow base to include more than white men in rural states.

A couple of reasons why this is a misleading assumption. One, everyone believed it was true in 2016. Few believed Donald Trump could win. Well, the Electoral College reeducated us in a hurry. Two, and related to the first, is that the Republicans will have no qualms about losing the popular vote for years and years, decades even. A small minority of Americans will be happy to rule a huge majority of Americans until the day it can’t. I don’t see incentive for the Republican Party to rethink a built-in geographic advantage, because it continues to work for the GOP. To put this another way, I will be long dead by the time the Republican Party nominates a woman.

Of the cold-blooded strategies, Ed’s third point is the strongest. Nominate a woman who is not as vulnerable to sexism as Hillary Clinton was. Specifically, Ed said, a kind of sexism that was rooted in perceptions of age and race. Ed cites Peter Beinart, who wrote, for The Atlantic, that Kamala Harris may be an exception to the sexism rule in that black women are already seen as strong. When they act strong they aren’t playing “against stereotype.” White women like Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, are not “supposed to be” strong. When they act strong, they evoke backlash.

Ultimately, you can’t know what you don’t know until you know it. I think Ed is totally right here: “Until such time as voters cast their ballots in caucuses and primaries, it’s premature to decide Democrats can’t ‘risk’ running a woman again.” I will add this:

Whoever the nominee is, he or she will not be judged on merits alone. The Republican Party and its billionaire allies are prepared to spend any sum to defeat the Democrat, even if that means turning the public square into a dump. In other words, a global propaganda apparatus will aim to lower everyone to the gutter, even Trump, in order to suppress the vote and create conditions for victory by a minority president.

Given this, I say go for it.

John Stoehr

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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