WASHINGTON – American voters aren’t sure women can lead. Therefore,many female candidates feel pressure to display themselves as stronger than their male opponents.
And that paradox doomed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign,according to four female political experts.
“If she had been a traditional white male,she would have been inevitable,” said Dee Dee Myers,one of the experts. Myers was President Bill Clinton’s first press secretary and the first woman to hold the job.
Impact Arts + Film Fun,a nonprofit group that sponsors film and discussion programs,and The Washington Post sponsored a panel discussion Tuesday about Post White House correspondent Anne Kornblut’s new book,”Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton,Sarah Palin,and What it Will Take for a Woman to Win.”
Joining Kornblut,who covered the 2008 election,were Myers,former Sarah Palin campaign adviser Nicolle Wallace and syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker. The women discussed the challenges Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin faced during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Clinton’s 2008 campaign message,according to Myers: “If you mess with my children,I’m gonna kill you.”
At least that’s the message Clinton had to project to quiet those who said that she,as a woman,was too weak to lead the country. She had to care about her “children” – the American public – as well as be strong.
But as a woman,her leadership was not taken for granted. So Clinton’s campaign tried to portray her as being extra tough to combat the “woman issue,” Myers said. This led to its own problems. She came off as too harsh,lacking the generosity that is necessary in a public figure.
Republicans were operating under the principle that “we must stop the evil Hillary Clinton from being elected president,” Myers said.
Parker said that,while all candidates for presidency must survive political attacks,women have it harder.
“You get hit below the belt,” Parker said.
While many male politicians cry and are found acceptable or even kindhearted for it,Clinton’s “meltdown,” consisting of one or two quickly wiped-away tears,was treated mercilessly by the media,Kornblut said.
“Bush was a weeper,” Wallace said,but no one raised an eyebrow during his teary episodes.
Palin also faced challenges.
“She was like a running back sent into the Super Bowl with absolutely nobody blocking for her,” Myers said.
Parker,who wrote critically of Palin,found herself the object of anger.
“It was intense. It was furious. I got death threats,” Parker said.
In part,Republicans chose Palin in hopes that disenchanted Democratic women would switch to the side with a female vice-presidential candidate.
“It just wasn’t in the cards,” Myers said. Ideology was stronger than gender loyalty.
Parker said women are often especially critical of female candidates because they manifest not simply as political figures but as symbols for all womankind.
“Palin embarrassed us,” Parker said.
The speakers said a future female president will have to be someone Americans know and are comfortable with,unlike the Alaska candidate.
“Sarah truly popped out of a place where they call us the lower 48,” Wallace said.
The speakers differed over whether Palin could ever run for president.
“She could never win a national election. Never,” Parker said.
The speakers also explored why other developed countries have had female leaders.
“There’s something in our national myth that makes it harder,” Myers said. It has something to do with the idea that “Europe is girly,and we’re not.”
Michele Leber,71,a retired librarian from Washington,was among about 100 people who attended the discussion. She said the speakers were both wise and entertaining.
She said the panel “put their finger on the problem of women running for political office,” and she liked what the women had to say about American women achieving the same political success as women in other countries.
“One day,we’ll have a woman president,” said Leber. “I hope I live to see it.”