And now political reporters, please give “very serious consideration” to retiring this hoary question. It’s offensive, condescending and, instead of boosting women, confirms the belief that they are taken less than seriously by the greater world.
Yes, I understand the query is well-meant. Women’s rage over Trump’s 2016 victory and his record in the White House is one of the main driving forces behind the resistance to his administration. It was the surprise success of the Women’s March that made it clear how many people were opposed to his administration from Day 1.
It’s also women who are the majority of volunteers on political campaigns and issues, sending postcards, calling their representatives and banging on doors to ask people to come out and vote. And it’s teachers — about 75 percent of whom are female — who have gone on strike in red states such as West Virginia as well as hyperliberal Los Angeles, working to get themselves raises in some of the most effective labor action in recent memory.
And women, of course, were behind the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. As Brookings’ Elaine Kamarck pointed out in a blog post from last month, titled “Why there will be a woman on the 2020 Democratic ticket,” almost 6 of 10 women voted for the Democratic Party in the 2018 midterm elections.
Yet despite all this female action and anger, two aged male septuagenarians (that would be Sanders and Joe Biden) are leading in most Democratic candidate polls while women such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala D. Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand languish far below them. (Though I do need to add that Warren came in second in a recent Quinnipiac poll.)
That doesn’t look very good, does it? So, goes the conventional wisdom, something needs to be done to keep the ladies happy. Surely a spot on the presidential ticket in second place is the right thing to make that happen.
But getting a woman on the ticket in this way is the equivalent of a pat on the head. In an attempt to boost female voters and pols, it instead trivializes them.
Moreover, this sort of pandering — and make no mistake, if this is how a woman gets on the presidential ticket, that’s what it is — doesn’t have a great history.
The Democrats and the Republicans have both put a woman in the second slot exactly once. In 1984, Walter Mondale selected New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, while in 2008, John McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Neither woman was treated particularly well. Ferraro was attacked about everything from her husband’s financial practices to her stance on abortion, while Barbara Bush famously described her husband’s Democratic vice-presidential opponent with the phrase “rhymes with rich.” The obviously unqualified Palin stumbled from gaffe to gaffe and, according to a study published in the journal Politics & Policy, received significantly more coverage about her looks and family than Biden, Barack Obama’s vice presidential pick.
The two women shared another thing in common, too: They were selected by men who went on to lose their elections. This likely was not a coincidence. In the corporate world, when a woman ascends to a top position as things are faltering, it’s called the glass cliff. She’s given the chance to prove her mettle only when the chances of success are not that great. In other words, both the qualified Ferraro and the not-ready-for-prime-time Palin were the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.
We can do better. One way forward: If you are going to ask the question, make sure you ask it of everyone. This is what I think former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper was getting at when he answered the question at his CNN Town Hall. “Of course,” he said when asked the question. But then he added, “How come we’re not asking, more often, the women, ‘Would you be willing to put a man on the ticket?’”
In other words, if we are already asking men about their possible picks for vice president, we should ask the women, too. If not, perhaps we are assuming they cannot win.
But even better, retire it entirely. A female pick for vice president is not going to magically pull an otherwise weak candidate over the finish line. A vice presidential candidate needs to be more than that. As Warren, who was eventually also asked if she would run with another woman, put it, “I’d put a woman on my ticket. I’d put a man on my ticket. What I want is somebody who’d be in the fight.” Who can disagree with that?