The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton is playing the “woman card” too early

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at an event at Rancho High School in Las Vegas on May 5. (John Locher/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Americans won’t be doing themselves any favors if they make the same mistake three times in a row and elect a candidate who is more interested in acting as some sort of symbol than in being an engaged, working president. President Obama probably peaked on Election Day 2008. He thought he had done his job simply by getting elected and becoming an icon of America’s progress on race. By being elected, he proved the melting pot is real. And as significant as that is, it hasn’t made him an effective president. Obama is living proof that a president won’t necessarily be feared or respected or succeed just because their election was some sort of symbolic breakthrough.

In 2016, it is urgent that we elect a president who actually has the skill set and personality required to be an effective leader at home and abroad. The presidency is not one-size-fits-all. It is a unique job that requires skills that are both innate and learned.

So is it smart for Hillary Clinton to play the “women card” this early in the race? She is already talking about the symbolism of her candidacy as a reason why we should support her. As she said in an interview with the Des Moines Register in Iowa on Sunday, “I expect to be judged on my merits, and the historic nature of my candidacy is one of the merits that I hope people take into account.” Well, her campaign can’t be pitched as a third Obama term and her own post-government private sector money hunt erodes her credibility in championing solutions to income inequality. Her record as Secretary of State doesn’t exactly shine. She doesn’t appear to feel particularly strongly about any particular issue. “Fighting for the middle class” isn’t exactly a fresh, bold appeal.  Anyway, the operative class is beginning to murmur, and a lot of the pundits cannot seem to discern what her real, ultimate campaign strategy is. Is her strategy just to hunker down, stick to a narrow script and play the “woman card”?

In the absence of anything else to say, Hillary Clinton has felt compelled to remind everybody that she is a woman and offer that fact as a key reason why one should vote for her. And perhaps relying on gender and the historic nature of the first female president would be a viable — if risky — plan for a frontrunner during the last ten days of a campaign, but sustaining this for a full eighteen months before election day will become untenable.  She needs to build and maintain appeal for a long stretch ahead, and an overt reliance on her gender will not do the trick.  Hillary Clinton will need to start answering questions and taking positions on the issues that matter most to the Democratic base, or she risks “Clinton Campaign” becoming a new synonym for “opaque and dodgy”.  Her campaign is on the brink of supplying more punchlines than real messages.

I have often thought the Democrats didn’t want to have freewheeling relationships with the fair-minded media because they didn’t want people to know what they really think. Hillary, on the other hand, doesn’t want to deal with the media because she doesn’t know what she believes. Sure, she’s a classic liberal and all that, but she only knows for certain that she wants to be president.  Everything else seems negotiable and her policy positions are — at best — situational.