Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Playing the victim, just like the boys do

With respect to the burning question of whether Hillary Clinton has been playing the "gender card" since her wobbly debate performance last Tuesday, I offer these observations (borrowing the rhetorical flourishes of Donald Rumsfeld):

Do I think that she's trying to play the victim, depicting herself as a girl who's being unfairly beaten up by the boys? Oh my, yes.

Do I think that her claim of victimhood is justified? Goodness gracious, no.

But do I understand her political reasons for playing the gender card? Yes.

It's indisputable that Hillary and her campaign team went into damage control mode after the Tuesday debate in Philadelphia, and sought to shift the focus away from her evasive and confusing answers by claiming instead that the boys on stage had ganged up on her in sexist fashion.

Her chief strategist, Mark Penn, reportedly told supporters in a Wednesday conference call that the Democratic campaign had become "this six-on-one to try to bring her down." That same day, Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME, the prto-Hillary public service union, complained that the Philadelphia debate was "six guys against Hillary." Meanwhile, unnamed Clinton advisers told the Associated Press that the campaign had long planned to play the gender card, as a general strategy, in order to deflect attacks by accusing her male rivals of boorish behavior. Then Hillary went to Wellesley, her alma mater, and played the gender card herself, referring to her solitary status inside "the all-boys club of presidential politics."

Hillary shifted gears on Sunday in Iowa, claiming this time that she was not playing the gender card - "I don't think they piled on me the other night because I'm a woman. I think they piled on me because I'm winning" - but that argument (the correct one, by the way) was promptly contradicted by one of Hillary's most prominent supporters, 1984 vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro...who told The New York Times, in the Monday edition, that the boys had been "sexist." Or, more specifically, "it's OK in this country to be sexist."

This was my favorite Ferraro quote: "We can’t let them do this in a presidential race. They say we’re playing the gender card. We are not. We are not. We have got to stand up. It’s discrimination against her as a candidate because she is a woman.” First she claims that Hillary's campaign is not playing the gender card; then, in the next breath, she complains about discrimination on the basis of gender.

I'm not quite clear how all this whining about allegedly unfair treatment squares with the Hillary campaign's depiction of the candidate as a "strong woman" - it seems they want to have it both ways - although I can see why they are taking this tack. It's probably smart politics.

By all accounts, 54 percent of the Democratic primary voters are expected to be women, particularly blue-collar working women (Hillary's strongest base of support) who may often feel oppressed by guys in the workplace. Hillary wants to ensure a big turnout from those women. Simply put, she's playing the gender card because she wants to win. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, quoted yesterday by abcnews.com, recognized the strategy: "I think the campaign is trying to (reach) people who didn't even watch the debate, to say, 'Oh, they were really rude,' or something like that, and that has some salience. You know, every vote counts."

A politician can be right on the politics and wrong on the facts, however. And this claim that Hillary is being picked on because of her gender is preposterous. Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a feminist herself (as well as a John Edwards supporter), got it right in a blog post over the weekend: "At one minute, (Hillary is) the strong woman ready to lead; the next, she's the woman under attack, disingenuously playing the victim card as a means of trying to avoid giving honest, direct answers to legitimate questions."

Actually, Hillary seems to have much in common with members of the all-boys club. Prominent males have been notorious for playing the victim. Lyndon Johnson played the Texas card, depicting himself as a country boy under seige from the smart academic elitists whom he called "the Harvards." Richard Nixon felt he was being victimized by the eastern establishment, and by one group in particular (from the White House tapes: "the Jews! left-wing! stay away!"). Bill Clinton whined about his press coverage and complained that he was being victimized by a "vast right-wing conspiracy" (his wife coined that one).

In other words, Hillary is acting just like lots of guy politicians who find themselves in a fix. Acting aggrieved, and playing for sympathy, is standard stuff; the gender card is merely the latest incarnation. It might not be particularly noble or justified, but, as Donald Rumsfeld might say to Democratic primary voters, you go to battle with the candidate you have, not with the candidate you might want or wish to have.


On the other hand, what does it say about the '08 Republican presidential field, when the guy who sets the party record for Most Money Raised in 24 Hours turns out to be...Ron Paul?

Yes, the antiwar libertarian long-shot candidate raised $4.2 million yesterday, topping any 24-hour hauls by Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and the rest of the pro-war field. I emphasize the Iraq war here, because it's clear that Paul has a market for his views within the GOP base. As reported in the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, 35 percent of Republicans now believe that the war was not worth fighting, and virtually the same percentage favors troop withdrawals.

Obviously, that's not nearly enough to propel Paul to the nomination, but I would not rule out the possibility that Paul could spring a surprise somewhere along the way, perhaps in contrarian New Hampshire.


When I saw this story today, I first wanted to ensure that I was not reading a transcript from "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live. And, yes, the story is indeed for real:

John Kerry wants everybody to know that if he runs for president again in the future, he's really gonna fire back at those Swift Boaters next time.

He's starting to sound like Brando, playing the ex-boxer who missed his shot at the big time in On the Waterfront: "I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody..."