Lately, a fashionable question for male 2020 presidential contenders requires them to pretend they’ve already won the Democratic nomination and they’re now on the hunt for a running mate. Would they, as their vice presidential partner, choose a woman?
The candidates listen to the question and then begin the delicate work of emphasizing that gender parity — ostensibly a priority for many Democratic voters — is also a priority for them. So important, in fact, that they are the most qualified candidate to achieve it, even more than any of the women who are running.
Cory Booker: “If I am elected as the nominee, I’m going to make sure there is gender diversity on the ticket.”
Beto O’Rourke: “It would be very difficult not to select a woman with so many extraordinary women who are running right now.”
Julián Castro: “For sure.”
Joe Biden reportedly considered preempting the question entirely by planning to simultaneously jump into the race and announce his running mate as Stacey Abrams, who lost the Georgia gubernatorial election but became a liberal shooting star. A spokesman for Biden denied that such a plan was ever hatched.
All of the candidates’ answers are right, sort of, while also being deeply unsatisfying, sort of.
Are these men doing exactly what feminists have always asked male allies to do, which is use their positions of power to reach down and help women up? Or are they doing something more crafty — handing out vice presidencies like reassuring pats on the head, while allowing voters to still put a man in the Oval Office?
“Has anyone told Biden that black women aren’t his prop for votes?” asked Stephen Crockett on the Root. “Has anyone told Biden that Stacey Abrams isn’t to be played with?”
Where is the line between condescension and inclusion? Where is the line between powerful men being a pathway to gender parity and just being self-congratulatory gatekeepers?
Why are men being asked whether they’d choose a female VP instead of being asked whether they’d be a woman’s VP?
This is the point that former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper swears he was trying to raise when he bungled his own answer to the female vice president question. He first said he would absolutely consider a woman. Then he kept talking. “How come we’re not asking more often, the women, ‘Would you be willing to put a man on the ticket?’ ”
He sounded like the bro who annually demands a Men’s History Month, but he swore he meant the opposite. The question is wrong, he said, because it presumes that a man would be the primary’s winner. “Women I know feel that is a form of discounting,” he said. “That they are less likely to win the nomination.”
Heaven knows there’s another reason women aren’t asked whether they would choose a male running mate. Because, of course they would. And they will. Because choosing a female running mate would be the height of, what’s that word? Unelectable.
Unelectable, in a way that either pretends to be reasoned, i.e. I just don’t think the armed forces are ready for a female commander in chief without a male running mate. Or, in a way that goes straight to the bottom: What if they both have PMS at the same time, heh heh?
I don’t know how to think about the vice president question. I don’t know how men should answer it. I don’t know why every answer feels off to me while also being a perfectly sufficient response.
Maybe it’s that, after three blessed American centuries, it would be nice for a woman to sit at the head of the table and not at someone’s right hand while being constantly reminded that a man was benevolent enough to put her there.
Not that these men don’t deserve to run. Not that they couldn’t each bring attention and elbow grease to important issues. Not that a candidate’s gender should be any voter’s deciding factor in casting a ballot.
But, you can love Beto O’Rourke — and a lot of people do — and still acknowledge the ego of his candidacy. It takes a certain kind of confidence to lose a Senate race, then look at a field already populated with experienced senators who are women and decide the race is still missing something, and what it’s missing is you.
Which might be part of the answer I wish I heard in responses to the vice president question. Deep reflection from the candidates, not about the question, but about themselves and their role in this moment in history: “Of course I will seriously consider female candidates, and whether they should be on my ticket. And while I’m at it, I’ll ask myself — I’ll at least entertain the question — of whether I need to be on a ticket at all.”
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.