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Damsel in the Debate

By Ruth Marcus
Friday, November 2, 2007

My favorite photo of the week -- maybe my favorite photo of the presidential campaign so far -- showed Hillary Clinton, dukes up, in a pair of bright red boxing gloves. It is iconic Hillary, unafraid to take on a fight. Which is also why the almost anti-feminist subtext of the past few days -- a message emanating from the Clinton campaign and its allies -- has been so unnecessary, and so disappointing.

"Six guys against Hillary," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as he announced the union's endorsement and presented Clinton with the gloves. "I'd call that a fair fight."

McEntee's remarks echoed the "piling on" theme the Clinton campaign adopted after Tuesday's debate in Philadelphia in which Clinton was pummeled by her competitors. The campaign was careful not to say so directly, at least not on the record, but the not-so-subtle implication was that a gang of mean, mean men was beating up on the only woman in the race.

"She is one strong woman. She came through it well. But Hillary's going to need your help," the Clinton campaign told supporters in a fundraising e-mail.

The Hill newspaper, listening in on a conference call with Clinton fundraisers, quoted chief strategist Mark Penn being even more explicit about the "backlash" he was detecting among female voters: "Those female voters are saying, 'Sen. Clinton needs our support now more than ever if we're going to see this six-on-one to try to bring her down.' "

Please. The Philadelphia debate was not exactly a mob moment to trigger the Violence Against Women Act; if anything, this has been an overly (pardon the phrase) gentlemanly campaign to date. Those other guys were beating up on Clinton, if you can call that beating up, because she is the strong front-runner, not because she is a weak woman.

And a candidate as strong as Clinton doesn't need to play the woman-as-victim card, not even in "the all-boys club of presidential politics," as Clinton called it in a speech yesterday at her all-women alma mater, Wellesley College. I have a pretty good nose for sexism, and what I detected in the air from Philadelphia was not sexism but the desperation of candidates confronting a front-runner who happens to be a woman.

Indeed, one of the things I've loved about Clinton's campaign recently is that it's seemed almost post-feminist: The senator's been so comfortable in being simultaneously the leading candidate for the nomination and a woman that she can summon her inner Rodgers and Hammerstein and enjoy being a girl.

"I have been reminded by some of my friends that when you get to be my age having so many men pay attention to you is kind of flattering," Clinton said in Iowa the other day.

"If you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I'm your girl," she said at an earlier Democratic debate. Clinton can get away with calling herself a "girl" because no one doubts that she's a woman. She transcends the girl-as-belittling-putdown move.

Now this six-on-one stuff. Clinton stumbled in the debate, uncharacteristically but nowhere near fatally. In response, Penn & Co. are playing a good game of rope-a-dope.

After all, they have experience with this move, from the 2000 New York Senate race, when Republican Rick Lazio loomed into Clinton's personal space during a debate and quickly saw his numbers tank. For the Clinton campaign, the best thing would be to have the Philadelphia story played as Lazio II -- more bullies trying to intimidate her.

Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin made that point at a briefing yesterday by Emily's List, the pro-woman Democratic group that has endorsed Clinton.

"As the other candidates, the male candidates, frankly, attack her, it's not a free shot in terms of how this base of voters may react to that," he said. "It's not true that all of these women will take it as a neutral act, these kinds of attacks."

Added pollster Diane Feldman, "I think the attacks from other candidates are both a risk [for the men] and an opportunity for Senator Clinton, because the image of her standing up to the attacks and moving forward unfazed when there are . . . up to seven men attacking her . . . at once may well reinforce the 58 percent of women who feel that her being president may cause a change in attitudes toward women."

Count me with those 58 percent. A female president can't help but change attitudes toward women -- I believe for the better. But using gender this way is a setback. Hillary Clinton is woman enough to take these attacks like a man.

marcusr@washpost.com

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