Women's Political Muscle Shapes 2000 Race
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 1999; Page A1
Elizabeth Hanford Dole, soccer moms, George W. Bush and compassionate conservatism, the Family Medical Leave Act and the assault weapons ban -- each is part of the "feminization of politics," a trend that has begun to shape the 2000 race for president.
As more women have entered the work force and developed their own political agenda, politicians have given increasing priority to issues women identify as important and a more personal campaign style to attract the support of female voters, who make up 51 percent of the electorate.
Democrats in recent years have capitalized on the phenomena. President Clinton designed his 1996 strategy to take advantage of it, and won decisively. Republicans, in contrast, are divided. Ronald Reagan and George Bush implicitly defied the feminization of politics and won every presidential election in the 1980s with a majority male constituency -- a strategy that carried House and Senate Republicans to striking success in 1994.
But now, in the face of the 1996 and 1998 Republican setbacks and an impeachment drive that alienated legions of men and even more women, the GOP is split between those who would come to terms with the feminization of politics and those who would reaffirm the party's tradition of tough stands on defense spending and hard-line commitment to deregulated markets.
While the feminization of politics has produced a practical change in the way politics is conducted, it also is an evolving concept that is viewed differently by different groups.
The feminization of politics translates, according to those allied with Clinton, into policies protecting the poor, that attempt to ease conflicts between family and work and that provide safety-net supports for those facing economic hardships.
"The idea of a safety net comes up over and over," said Kim Gandy, vice president of the National Organization for Women.
The resulting legislation includes not only the Family and Medical Leave Act and Megan's Law, which warns families of the release of sex offenders, but also pro-women laws such as sexual harassment prohibitions, the Violence Against Women Act and the criminalization of non-support by deadbeat dads.
The dominance of the national agenda by such issues as Social Security, Medicare and education gives further strength to the feminization process. All these issues are given higher priorities by women than men, in contrast to an agenda of tax cuts, defense spending and throw-away-the-key anti-crime policies favored more by men.
From the early 1980s to the middle of this decade, the feminization of politics was a concept used largely by conservative Republicans to describe what they saw as the softening and weakening of the Democratic Party.
Harvard political scientist Harvey C. Mansfield said feminization has produced "a politics that doesn't call for sacrifice or that doesn't try to use necessity to prompt virtue -- a politics of the softer liberal virtues, not of the harder courageous ones."
In 1996, Irving Kristol wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the "feminization" of the Democratic Party had produced a national convention "bathed in a pre-political pathos. . . . The message was: If terrible things happen to innocent people, government -- and only the federal government at that -- is morally obliged to come to their rescue."
The gender-based division of the two parties prompted new ways of looking at partisanship.
Christopher Matthews, columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, has written that the Democratic and Republican parties have become, respectively, the "Mommy" and "Daddy" parties. Republican consultant Don Sipple has described the GOP as the party of "discipline" and Democrats as the "therapy" party. University of California at Berkeley linguist George Lakoff contends that the culture war pits a "strict father" conservatism versus a "nurturant parent" liberalism.
The partisan split over Clinton's impeachment fits these theories, with the GOP adopting a "strict father" disciplinary approach, and Democrats adopting a tolerant, "nurturant" parent role, more therapeutic than disciplinary.
Since the 1980 election, a majority of those who say they are Republicans are men and a majority of those who say they are Democrats are women. This partisan-sex division reflects different attitudes of men and women toward government, foreign intervention, risk, gun control and a number of other issues, and on which party best addressed their views.
Separate studies of attitudes toward risk by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and the journal Risk Analysis demonstrate, according to the journal report, that "men tend to judge risks as smaller and less problematic than do women."
This difference is a significant factor in forming attitudes on specific issues. Polls consistently show that men are more supportive of military spending and military interventions in places such as the Persian Gulf and the Balkans than women. Surveys also showed that men favor cutting the size of the federal government while women favor expanding government programs. And on crime issues, men are willing to make it easier for those without criminal records to get a concealed weapon permit, while women are adamantly opposed.
Before 1992, Republicans demonstrated striking success in elections stressing issues favored by male voters, winning with a reverse gender gap: Far higher percentages of men than women voted for the GOP presidential candidates. In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan defeated Walter F. Mondale by a whopping 25 percentage points among men but by only 12 points among women.
In 1992, Clinton defeated President Bush with a strategy geared as much or more to men, to break the GOP hold on them. Using such themes as a promise to end welfare "as we know it," approving the controversial execution of Ricky Ray Rector in Arkansas and taking on Jesse L. Jackson for giving a public podium to an anti-white rap singer -- stands viewed most favorably by white men -- Clinton won with the smallest gender gap in recent years. He carried men, 41 to 38 percent, and women, 45 to 37 percent.
Clinton was acutely aware that many working class voters viewed Mondale's 1984 selection of Geraldine Ferraro as a running mate as caving into NOW and other feminist groups, and that the 1988 Bush campaign used film of Michael S. Dukakis's head peeking out from the top of a tank to ridicule the Democratic nominee's virility.
The 1996 presidential election brought to an abrupt end the view that Democratic dependence on the votes of women was a political weakness, converting the feminization of the Democratic Party into a strength.
Clinton went into the contest facing a major dilemma: his policies in 1993-94 -- gays in the military, turning over health care policy to his wife, the pressure for diversity in Cabinet appointments -- eroded the fragile support he had received from men in 1992, helping to produce the 1994 revolt of "angry white men," when the GOP took control of both the House and Senate.
Unable to replicate the 1992 strategy of appealing to men, Clinton adopted a strategy to explicitly attract female voters, while careful not to further alienate men. This strategy produced an agenda that included the v-chip, school uniforms, expansion of family and medical leave and prosecution of fathers who fail to pay child support. Clinton decisively defeated Robert J. Dole entirely on the basis of women's votes. Women voted for Clinton, while men, by 44 to 43 percent, voted for Dole.
As the 1996 election approached, the Republican Party began to shift gears in the debate over feminization. Some on the political right believe that when Elizabeth Dole took the floor at the convention in San Diego for an emotional, intimate discussion "about the man I love," it was a transforming event for the party.
"That was the moment when the Republican Party, at least for the time being, stopped trying to resist [feminization] and signed on in spades. Some of us thought it was a bit appalling, but it was a cultural moment," said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "We hated it at the time, but we were a minority. People loved her, and not just women. They thought it was great."
In the aftermath of what became known in Republican circles as "Liddy's Oprah Show," and a 1996 general election in which women picked the president and men picked the loser, a gender-based civil war broke out in GOP ranks.
The party known for the tough-minded conservatism of Ronald Reagan, the jail-Willie-Horton-for-life campaign of George Bush and the confrontational Congress of Newt Gingrich purposefully sent forth a single, divorced mother, Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), to respond to Clinton's State of the Union address. "I've been a single mother since my boys were little," Dunn told a national television audience. "I know how that knot in the pit of your stomach feels. I've been there."
Now, the GOP's likely presidential front-runner, George W. Bush, advocates a "compassionate conservatism," designed to take the edge off an image of the GOP as hard and uncaring.
Bush's compassion message has provoked a firestorm among more traditional conservatives. "I have ordered my staff to never -- ever -- utter the words 'compassionate conservative,' " former Vice President Dan Quayle said. "This silly and insulting term was created by liberal Republicans and is nothing more than code for surrendering our values and principles."
But not all conservatives remain so firmly opposed to the "feminization" of the GOP.
Francis Fukuyama, a conservative professor of public policy at George Mason University, said that the "feminization of world politics" has produced "very positive results." Such phenomena, he said, as "aggression, violence, war and intense competition . . . are more closely associated with men than women. . . . A world run by women would follow different rules, it would appear, and it is toward that sort of world that all post-industrial or Western societies are moving."
William Kristol said the growing strength of feminization within the GOP "has good and bad aspects": a "kinder and gentler world," but one in which political leaders may become "less heroic, less noble."
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