Friday, July 14, 2006

Hillary Clinton in the Public Imagination

I wrote the other day about how Mark Green’s support among Republican voters in Wisconsin is existent, but still relatively weak.

The same seems to be true for Hillary Clinton’s support among Democratic voters across the country, according to an article that appeared in the Washington Post yesterday, although for very different reasons than Green.

Clinton is regularly touted as the frontrunner for the Dem presidential nomination in 2008, although she has yet to officially announce her candidacy.

According to the Post article, many voters feel Clinton is a competent leader and an overall smart person, but those same voters waver at her calculated political moves and the motives behind them. Others also cite an inability to connect with her on a personal level as something that gives them pause.

As one Democratic voter explains: “I want to see her as a human being -- I can read a newspaper and see her agenda.”

The poll numbers with Clinton are also alarming. In a recent Post-ABC poll, 68% of Dem respondents saw her as a strong leader, 65% said she has strong family values, and 58% feel she’s open and friendly. In spite of all these positives, only 37% said they would definitely vote for her if she was running for president.

I have similar feelings for Clinton. I think she is a brilliant woman and a confident leader, but her moves often appear to be based more on calculation than conviction. In a sense, this is the nature of beast with politicians (save some notable exceptions, like Russ Feingold) – and that’s really the issue here.

It’s not so much that Clinton is positioning herself that’s a problem, it’s that she can’t break the perception of being someone who positions herself. After all, positioning is the best way to describe what John McCain is currently doing by cozying up to the far right – although those moves don’t seem to have the same negative impact on him (at least yet) as they do for Clinton.

I see two main causes for the negative perceptions surrounding Clinton.

One, she’s married to the arch-nemesis of the Republican Party. Nearly every conservative I talk to can’t stand Bill Clinton. After all, he’s a Democrat who was elected in the midst of what was supposed to be a conservative political ascendancy following the election of Reagan in 1980.

It was supposed to be the New Right’s time in the sun, and Clinton rained on the parade by masterfully co-opting conservative ideas like "free" trade and welfare reform while still refusing to budge on other issues like the massive cuts associated with the now defunct “Contract with America.” And, if that wasn’t enough, Bill Clinton remains a very popular person in the US to this day despite the marital infidelities the GOP harped on for years during and following Clinton’s time in office. That has to hurt.

The effect of all this on Hillary Clinton is that she is inextricably tied to her husband in the conservative imagination, making her not only a reminder but also an embodiment of those eight years when the New Right didn’t control the White House. Not to mention the fact that Clinton was the most active First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt – something that probably didn’t sit well with many social conservatives (similar to how it’s difficult for me to watch a smart woman like Laura Bush resign herself in public to beauty pageant stances like “I think kids should read”).

In light of this, conservatives have done everything they can to paint Clinton as a rigid hardliner, which inevitably has leaked its way into the general public’s perception of her. Many conservatives would like nothing more than to face Clinton in a general election contest – the table already has been set for her swift-boating, all they need to do is dig in.

Two, it’s difficult for many to accept Clinton’s political positioning as just part of the job because she’s a woman. In the public conscious, women are still supposed to portray a nurturing role in society, whereas men are allowed and expected to be more aggressive.

Take our country's apprentices, for instance, Donald Trump and Martha Stewart. While Trump's calculated aggression can be played off as cool and smug, Stewart's sharp business attitude has given her the reputation of being, well, a bitch.

For another example, consider the ruthlessness of someone like Dick Cheney -- now just imagine how much worse that would be perceived if he was a she. Think Ann Coulter, but with actual power.

So when a calculating woman like Hillary Clinton steps up to the plate in the political world -- where positioning is virtually a must for success, especially at the national level -- what is expected of male politicians appears negative for her. This, as much as any explicit gender prejudice, is what is keeping a woman out of the presidency.

And there’s a good chance it’ll help to keep Hillary Clinton out – in spite of all her money, connections, and ability.


LATE UPDATE: A Gallup poll was just released that shows Hillary Clinton's support below Bill Clinton's support. While 59 percent of respondents have a favorable impression of Bill, only 51 percent have a favorable impression of Hillary.

Considering the two are pretty close on the issues and their willingness to position themselves politically, the differences in favorabilty between them is telling.

Perhaps most interesting about the poll is the gender breakdown of the responses. Bill Clinton enjoys nearly identical favorability from men (58% favorable, 36% unfavorable) as he does from women (59% favorable, 39% unfavorable). There is a stark contrast, however, in these numbers for Hillary Clinton -- 58% favorable, 37% unfavorable with women and 43% favorable and 52% unfavorable with men.

The evidence doesn't get much starker that gender plays a role in how Hillary Clinton is perceived by the public.


Blogger Justine said...

Right-wing Republicans will not vote for a Democrat anyway, so shed no tears for those votes...they were never yours to lose.

Ask what is Hillary's approval rating among women (the majority of the electorate), and young women...

As the only woman in a competition likely to be filled with men only, do you think she will stand out.

They can't attack her on family values, they've never destroyed her despite many attempts - she can not be swiftboated and will respond effectively to smear campaigns (she's had a lot of practice).

Many of the arguments for why Hillary is not the best candidate for Dems are reasoned in an ex post facto fashion. It is assumed that a woman cannot get elected in the US...hmm....

I think you are mistaken.

July 16, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I wouldn't object to a Clinton presidency -- all I'm trying to do is explain why it appears she has the confidence of most Dems, but not necessarily their votes.

She also has a reputation of taking positions out of calculation rather than conviction. But since all politicians, particularly those on a national scale, do this at least some of the time, the question I'm responding to here is why that tag sticks to Hillary Clinton more than others (including her husband).

I don't think it's right, and I certainly don't support it -- all I'm trying to do here is explain it.

July 17, 2006  

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