The new face of women in politics

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; 8:11 AM

Now that Carly Fiorina has dissed Barbara Boxer's hair, I guess we can all get down and dirty on the subject of female candidates.

So this is what women talk about when they don't realize the mike is on?

When several Republican women won their primaries on Tuesday, I started thinking about whether the media would dub this another Year of the Woman. Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey said he doubted it, since in his view the mainstream press only likes to celebrate Democratic women, as in 1992.

I don't agree with that, but I also couldn't shake the feeling that this year would not get such a label.

And then it hit me: Eighteen years ago, in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings, it was a big deal that women were battling their way into elective office. In 2010, after Hillary Clinton nearly won a presidential nomination, after Sarah Palin ran on the GOP ticket, after three women have served as secretary of state, after many more women have served in the Senate and in governors' mansions, not so much.

It is interesting; it is noteworthy; it is well worth examining and dissecting. But it is not the kind of breaking news it once was.

What is equally fascinating, with more GOP women succeeding in politics -- just three of the 17 women now serving in the Senate are Republicans -- is the wider range of views. The media have often defined feminism as a byproduct of liberalism, but now some conservatives are claiming the mantle as well.

My colleague Anne Kornblut nailed this Thursday:

"With victories by several prominent women in Tuesday's primary elections came the familiar declarations that a 'year of the woman' is underway. But in at least five races, something even more remarkable occurred: The candidates' gender never became much of an issue.

"Tuesday's elections put on display the increasing diversity of female candidates, as well as their growing resilience. They were for abortion rights and against them, old and young, part of the political establishment and new to it. Their male opponents attacked them -- relentlessly, in some cases -- apparently unworried about being seen as picking on a woman. The women touched on their gender, but did so sparingly."

That may be the most striking development. Once upon a time -- 1984, actually -- there was a huge discussion of how aggressive Vice President George H.W. Bush could afford to be in his debate against Geraldine Ferraro. Even in 2000, when Rick Lazio walked over to Hillary Clinton during a Senate debate, he was castigated for invading her space. Now, women punch back with the best of them -- and that's a measure of equality.

In fact, they're so equal that they now have to fight off allegations of infidelity, if Nikki Haley's experience in the South Carolina governor's race is any indication.

At the Daily Beast, Linda Hirshman seems to argues that feminism and anti-choice policies can't coexist:

"Is the last hurrah of the feminist movement to put a bunch of antiabortion Republican females in public office? Or do most women, like every other group, have real political interests, which mere anatomy can not represent?. . .

"There is a deeper, more fundamental difference between Fiorina and Palin for that matter and Boxer, a difference that brilliantly illuminates the current debate about whether any woman in office is a plus for feminism. It's the difference between the candidate's autobiography and what's good for the people she would like to represent. Palin points to her own happy life as an example of why women should not need control over how many babies they have.

"When asked why she wants to make abortion criminal, Fiorina answers with a wrenching personal story about how she and her second husband found they could not have babies, causing her to realize what a 'precious gift life is.' Pressed, she says that her beloved husband Frank's mother had some childbearing issue and was counseled to have an abortion (which would have been criminal at the time, so who knows what actually was said). Had her mother-in-law aborted, she concludes that she, Carly, would have been deprived of her wonderful husband."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page is pumped about the California ladies, Fiorina and Meg Whitman:

"If Carly Fiorina can defeat liberal Barbara Boxer, she would represent the largest ideological shift in one Senate seat in many years. Ms. Boxer is so doctrinaire, and so unpersuasive to her peers, that Democrats have stripped her of Senate leadership on climate legislation. But she is also a brutal and well-funded campaigner who will portray Ms. Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard boss, as a cross between BP and Goldman Sachs who also favors back-alley abortions.

"Ms. Fiorina's message can be distilled into two themes: Grow the economy and cut spending. If that prevails on the Left Coast, we really do have a lovely revolution on our hands."

A brutal campaigner? Would the paper say that about a sharp-tongued man?

One woman did lose this week -- but not, says Mediaite, before a big buildup:

"Orly Taitz became a household name by using whatever spare time she had from her careers as a dentist, lawyer, and real estate agent to file frivolous lawsuits against Barack Obama, on account of his being from the Kenyan province of Indonesia. She decided to make a run for California Secretary of State as a GOP primary candidate, and lost yesterday by nearly 50%. If you were watching MSNBC last night, those numbers might shock you, because for a minute there, it seemed like everyone on MSNBC prime time saw Taitz as a viable threat. . . .

"Why give her the attention? Well, there's the fact that, to a certain extent, Taitz is a creation of MSNBC itself. She may have picked herself up by her bootstraps, but it wasn't until she engaged in a barely-intelligible shoutfest with David Shuster last year that anyone noticed her."

Tea-party favorite Sharron Angle won a Senate nomination in Nevada, but as the media rolled out some of her stranger-sounding positions, she's become a blank slate, the Daily Caller says:

"On her first day as the Republican challenger to Democratic Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Sharron Angle's campaign website showed no policy positions.

"Democrats spent Wednesday trying to reinforce the message that Angle -- who bested a host of Republicans in Tuesday's primary-- is extreme and her positions are farther right than most in the mainstream.

"Before the election, a page existed listing her stances on issues, but that page was dead on Wednesday. now shows a thank-you message, a request for donations and e-mail addresses and links to her social media pages -- and that's all."

The former governor of Alaska has to be counted among the week's winners, as Time reports:

"Sarah Palin had a pretty good Super Tuesday. Three of the four candidates she endorsed won, bringing her record in tightly contested races to 8-3 overall this midterm election year. Earlier in the day, TIME asked Palin how she makes her endorsement decisions. 'Oftentimes I'm looking at the candidate who shares the circumstances in which I've been: underfunded, up against the machine, no big endorsements, running a grassroots campaign with the help of volunteer friends and family,' Palin told TIME. 'When I see that, and can feel the momentum they can create with their passion in spite of greater challenges than their more comfortable opponents have, then I empathize, I relate, and I want to help'. . . .

"Palin doted particularly on Haley, one of her so-called Mama Grizzlies, not only stumping for her -- an effort she's made for only 7 of the 27 candidates she's backing -- but also rising to her defense in robocalls when accusations of infidelity arose. 'Well, whaddaya know?' Palin wrote on Facebook. 'South Carolina's conservative candidate, Nikki Haley, recently zipped to the front of the line in her state's race for governor; and lo and behold, now accusations of an affair surface.' "

I still can't get over Palin talking to the MSM. Of course, some of the candidates she backed were on track to win easily.

At Politics Daily, Melinda Henneberger looks at Carly's dismissal of Boxer's dyed-blonde hair as "so yesterday:"

"Here's what's so yesterday: Fiorina's whole 'Mean Girls' approach to female competition. Even as commentators across the country were saluting Fiorina as part of the unprecedented wave of female Republican candidates who'd prevailed at the polls on Tuesday night, she was behaving like a throwback, criticizing both her opponent's looks and her own party's gubernatorial nominee's judgment in terms that were far less attractive than a mere bad hair day."

I'd say that was the misstep of an inexperienced candidate, but Joe Biden dropped an F-bomb near an open mike. In case you missed it Thursday, here's my piece on how the vice president has rehabilitated his gaffe-prone image.

Meanwhile, Fiorina apologized to Sean Hannity on Fox for taking a swipe at him during the off-camera chatter, but what about Boxer?

FIORINA: Oh, you know, I was -- I was quoting a friend of mine. My goodness, my hair's been talked about by a million people, you know? It sort of goes with the territory.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: All right, okay.

FIORINA: Especially when you don't have any. As you remember, I started out with none. (She's a breast cancer survivor who has returned to her naturally dark hair.)

Roger's Back

Roger Simon, after a harrowing, life-threatening illness, returns as a Politico columnist -- and describes his ordeal and his changed life with typical good humor.

BP Plays Defense

The oil giant isn't throwing out the welcome mat for journalists, the NYT reports:

"A pilot wanted to take a photographer from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans to snap photographs of the oil slicks blackening the water. The response from a BP contractor who answered the phone late last month at the command center was swift and absolute: Permission denied.

" 'We were questioned extensively. Who was on the aircraft? Who did they work for?' recalled Rhonda Panepinto, who owns Southern Seaplane with her husband, Lyle. 'The minute we mentioned media, the answer was: 'Not allowed.'

"Journalists struggling to document the impact of the oil rig explosion have repeatedly found themselves turned away from public areas affected by the spill, and not only by BP and its contractors, but by local law enforcement, the Coast Guard and government officials."

And just when you thought the company's credibility couldn't leak any further:

"Government scientists said Thursday that as many as 40,000 barrels of oil have been flowing daily from the blown-out BP well, doubling earlier estimates and greatly expanding the scope of what is already the largest spill in U.S. history," the L.A. Times says.

Double what BP had said. Leaving Tony Hayward's company with half the reputation.

The Brits are getting royally teed off over the rhetoric on this side of the pond, as Greenpeace U.K. member Joss Garman says (via Andrew Sullivan):

"As the oil spill grows to match the size of England's green and pleasant land, there are signs that the famous British 'stiff upper lip' is starting to quiver.

"Writing in Britain's right wing Daily Telegraph newspaper this morning, the commentator Damian Reece devised an ingenious equation to justify his assertion that the slick isn't as bad as you soft-headed Americans would have us believe. 'If you take the 1,356 total dead or alive creatures collected. . . . then BP shareholders are currently paying £36.6m per animal based on the fall in the company's value. That has got to be an overreaction even in the hysterical world of President Barack Obama'. . . .

"In a clear snub to the president, the mayor of London Boris Johnson claimed that BP was a victim of 'anti-British rhetoric,' which he described as 'permeating from America'. . . .

"Never mind that BP's contingency plan for the event of an oil spill was riddled with falsehoods and errors. . . . In spite of all of this, the message from the British right is 'For goodness sake, pull yourselves together.' "

In other words, it's becoming a political soccer ball there, just like over here.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company