If you said Hillary Rodham Clinton owes the start of her independent political career to Rick Lazio, even Lazio might agree. The tipping point for the 2000 race for the U.S. Senate from New York between a former first lady and a U.S. Congressman? When Lazio, the Republican nominee, crossed over to Clinton’s side of the stage in a pre-election debate and demanded she sign a piece of paper. Few remember what was on that page, a pledge against using soft money in the campaign. They do remember the moment. Women – and to be fair, a lot of men – cringed, recalling similar encounters they might have had with a guy who stepped over the line. The rest is history, and it belongs to Clinton.
I thought of that image watching the back-and-forth between Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the gun legislation debate last week. Cruz’s question on the constitutionality of a ban on assault weapons, using the example of limits on the First Amendment, had merit. But it was the tone of condescension in Cruz’s voice and the smirk on his face that stuck.
“I’m not a sixth grader, Senator. I’ve been on this committee for 20 years,” Feinstein said. She has history, not only in the Senate but on the front lines of gun violence. Though her presence on the scene when San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered in 1978 doesn’t automatically give her the upper hand in a disagreement on gun rights, it does earn her some respect. Cruz missed that. And while his Senate seat looks to be safe in Texas, his national ambitions definitely took a hit. Who wants a president who reminds them of that dude who treated you like an idiot?
The attraction of bullies curdles quickly and many are getting fed up. During recent campaigns, mostly male politicians who could not stop chatting about “legitimate” rape, divine pregnancies and the merits of transvaginal ultrasounds mobilized women voters to vote against them, and it resulted in unlikely Democratic wins in Missouri and Indiana. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri retained her Senate seat, becoming one of 20 women currently in the Senate, a record 20 percent. Celebration for that breakthrough seemed a bit overdone, however, considering that women make up more than half the population.
The reaction was more “it’s about time” than “isn’t that amazing.”
Other institutions are certainly looking for a new way. After “nuns on the bus” making a case for the poor and vulnerable drew more fans than the scandal-tainted bishops of the Catholic Church, a new pope who admits he doesn’t have all the answers stressed humility. Who knows how the Vatican’s disciplinary actions against American nuns for espousing “certain radical feminist themes” will proceed? I wouldn’t bet against the nuns.
High profile Hillary Clinton, again at the right place at the right time, gained new supporters as she traveled across the world as secretary of state and became an icon of cool. She presented a modern partnership with President Obama, no slouch when it comes to reading the national mood.
The first African American president jumped into the 2008 race when wiser political heads urged him to wait. After a brutal primary campaign, Obama and Clinton — both smart politicians with a sense of the moment — made peace before their bruised staffs.
As chief diplomat, Clinton also had confrontations before political bullies who would diminish her. In a hearing on the attack at the consulate in Benghazi, male senators and House members blew a chance to ask substantive questions, preferring to lecture and provide an opening for Clinton to hit back and come out on top.
With the country fatigued by bluster and gridlock, will 2016 be the year for a woman in the White House? You get a feeling that Americans, rather than looking for a woman in the Sarah Palin mold, who spends time being one of the guys, want a new kind of leader.
And will Clinton once again be the beneficiary of a country sick of the antics of the bully boys?
Talk about timing.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3