How to shatter the 'highest, hardest' glass ceiling

By Anne E. Kornblut
Sunday, December 27, 2009; B01

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's approval ratings are soaring. Sarah Palin is now a best-selling author. From this vantage point, it almost seems obvious: the United States is going to elect a woman president. Someday soon. Right?

It would be easy, in the gauzy view of history, to forget how ugly the contest became for the two women who broke new ground in the 2008 presidential campaign. Remember Clinton's sagging eyes, splashed across the Drudge Report, as Rush Limbaugh asked whether the country would want to watch a woman grow old in office? Remember the collective gasp as the Sarah Palin baby controversy -- over whether her fifth child was really hers, followed by the news that her teenage daughter was pregnant -- threatened to overshadow the Republican National Convention?

Most people, including the candidates, would rather forget those moments and focus instead on the breakthrough we did witness in 2008: an election decisively waged and won by Barack Obama, the country's first African American president.

That other milestone still beckons though. Women are running for some of the most critical seats this year, in Massachusetts, California, Texas, Florida and elsewhere. Despite "lipstick on a pig," "beat the bitch," and "iron my shirt," the 2008 election wasn't just a collection of lowlights for female candidates. It was a chance for the country and for women running for high office to learn what it will take for a woman to someday assume the Oval Office.

As a political reporter, I spent more than two and a half years covering the Clinton campaign, and traveled with Palin after her nomination. Here are some lessons, culled from what I witnessed on the campaign trail, for the next female candidate who's aiming to break what Clinton called "the highest, hardest glass ceiling of all."

Don't take women -- especially young women -- for granted.

Hillary Clinton's top strategist, Mark Penn, posited, according to internal campaign documents, that she would win 94 percent of the young female vote -- and that women overall would automatically flock to her side. By the end of the campaign, they did, but that was not the case in the first caucus state, Iowa, where Clinton came in third, behind Obama and former senator John Edwards, and her support among young women was in the teens.

Clinton erred strategically early on, ceding college campuses -- including college women -- to Obama. She also struggled with whether to portray her campaign as "historic," debating the idea of a speech on gender for months. Focused on proving her toughness, she missed out on key endorsements from women, including Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy. Only when women began to see her as under siege during the New Hampshire primary campaign did Clinton begin to pick up steam among the constituency that would rally to her side for the rest of the primaries. But it was too late.

Advisers to Sen. John McCain made a similar mistake with Palin, assuming that the millions of women who supported Clinton would cross over to vote for a McCain-Palin ticket in order to make history. That was not the case; among Democratic women who said they supported Clinton, 82 percent voted for Obama, according to exit polling, demonstrating once more that party is more powerful than gender.

Prepare your family.

It used to be that female politicians worried excessively about the three H's -- hair, hemlines and husbands. Thanks to an increasingly equitable political landscape, where men's fashion is also under scrutiny (remember Al Gore's earth tones? Dick Cheney's unfortunate parka?) only one area is still a bigger problem for women: husbands. And families overall.

That was certainly the case for Hillary Clinton, who from the outset must have known that having a former two-term president for a husband was bound to bring extra scrutiny.

Clinton was less prepared for commentary about her daughter: When she learned that a television anchor had quipped on-air that Chelsea Clinton was being "pimped out" by the campaign, the candidate broke down in tears on a conference call, aides said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, endured withering attacks on her husband during her campaign for governor in 2004, which, had she won it, would have made her the first female governor of Missouri. Rivals accused her husband of running nursing homes where residents died because of neglect and were raped -- and charged McCaskill with ignoring the crimes. It was, according to political operatives, a classic example of a time-tested strategy: effectively undercutting a female candidate through a flaw in her family. Dianne Feinstein had been bypassed as Walter F. Mondale's running mate in 1984 because of questions about her husband's business. Geraldine Ferraro, whom Mondale did pick, was besieged with questions about her husband's finances, which became a focal point of the Republican case against the Democratic ticket.

Perhaps the most vivid example is Sarah Palin, whose daughter's pregnancy was never a source of overt political attack -- Obama declared it off-limits when the news broke -- but became a staple for comedians and commentators who raised questions about whether Palin could serve as vice president and raise so many children at once. The attention proved distracting, if not outright damaging. Yet even that wasn't new: Jane Swift, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, had been discouraged from running for reelection after giving birth to twins while in office. To this day, her allies believe her role as a mother was too uncomfortable for the political class to bear.

Expect them to hate you because you're beautiful.

When Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, was running for office, her advisers discovered something surprising. Voters, especially female voters, said in focus groups that they thought she looked too gorgeous to be a governor.

Their solution? Her advisers shot photographs of Granholm in black-and-white, running them in her television ads instead of video. "Women could not envision a female governor with her beauty," one of her advisers said. "When we took it down a notch, people said, 'Okay, she can be governor.' "

The lesson? Voters can find a woman attractive, but they don't necessarily think that translates into gravitas. Another case: Sarah Palin, who learned that having delegates wear "hot VP" buttons at a national party convention does not translate automatically into votes in November.

Speak softly and carry a big statistic.

It's a well-known saying among strategists who have run female candidates for higher office: Speak softly and carry a big statistic.

Democrat Amy Klobuchar, who was elected to the Senate from Minnesota in 2006, said she followed not only this advice but also the example of Janet Napolitano, who was then the governor of Arizona. Napolitano, also a Democrat, had won election in Arizona, a Republican stronghold, in part by building up a strong résumé as a prosecutor. Klobuchar decided to do the same. "Our backgrounds were similar, and our states were a lot tougher for Democrats," Klobuchar said of Napolitano. "What I noticed about her is, she would answer every question. She had specific proposals for things." Today, Klobuchar is the senior senator from her state, and Napolitano is the secretary of homeland security.

Beat breast cancer? You may beat your opponent.

When Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) disclosed in early 2009 that she had been diagnosed with -- and successfully treated for -- breast cancer during the previous year, she said she had hidden her illness from the public because she wanted to keep the focus on her work.

"I didn't want it to define me," Wasserman Schultz said at a tearful press conference.

But if history is any guide, the public may hold her in higher regard for having beaten back the disease. Napolitano, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, all experienced as much, in 2000, 2003 and 2004, respectively.

Once an awkward, taboo subject, breast cancer has become as familiar in politics as in the rest of society. And as female politicians have increasingly acknowledged the disease, voters seem to have responded positively, viewing it as a badge of courage. It is, some strategists believe, the equivalent of a man's war wound. "For women it confers courage, that you've faced up to something really difficult in your life," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. "It is described very much in terms of fighting a battle, and women who have gone through this successfully are described as survivors, and what it means to be a survivor goes beyond just a medical term."

Seize the moral high ground.

In the 2006 midterm elections that launched her into the House speaker's role, Democrat Nancy Pelosi had an idea: Give female candidates brooms, and hold a news conference declaring that it would take women "to clean out the House." The event never happened -- and in fact a number of female candidates that year lost -- but Pelosi was on to something. Voters instinctively view women as more honest, a trait they can use when running against men.

Pelosi has taken the idea of female saintliness to great heights in the speaker's role: She has repeatedly said that women's maternal skills translate into politics, and the photograph of her wielding the gavel with a passel of children on the House floor remains an enduring image of her tenure. Not every female lawmaker could pull this off. Even Pelosi, in an interview, said women should be associated as much with national security priorities as with children-related issues such as education and health care. But that has not stopped her from invoking babies where possible.

When she was debating the budget with the minority leader, Republican John A. Boehner, on the House floor this year, she wielded a photograph of her newest grandchild, her eighth. "This is what our commitment is about," she said, holding up the picture. In our interview, Pelosi elaborated: "I firmly believe that nothing has been more wholesome for the political and governmental process than the increased participation of women. This is absolute, without any question."

Anne E. Kornblut covers the White House for The Washington Post. This article is adapted from her book "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win," to be published Tuesday.

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