Michelle Goldberg, one of my favourite columnists at the NY Times, wrote an optimistic piece this morning about the risk of choosing a female Democratic candidate for President in 2020. You can read it here:
Ms. Goldberg, like many of us, is worried about the role that sexism – outright misogyny, in my view – played in the 2016 victory of The Trump. Admittedly, it’s hard to separate and measure the various strands that led to Hillary’s calamitous defeat; class resentment, racism, Russian interference, the stupidity of the Electoral College system, Hillary’s supposed inherent unlikeability, and the plain old ignorance of America’s rather dull electorate all played their part, tempting one to employ what for a while was punditry’s most overused metaphor, the “perfect storm”. Yet dislike of females seeking power was clearly a large part of the mix, too, as some intriguing social science experiments, detailed in Goldberg’s column, make clear.
Despite how strange it seems to outsiders in other democracies, this being two full years prior to the next Presidential election, the American campaign machinery is already spooling up to full power, and on the Democratic side there would appear to be a surfeit of candidates, even before Beto O’Rourke enters the fray (as surely he will, methinks). One of the most cheering aspects of the slate is the prominence of three very capable and credible women (with more to come?), Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and, as of yesterday, Kamala Harris. Each displays the positive character traits and innate intelligence that are usually the hallmarks of successful female politicians, anomalies like Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin notwithstanding, since it remains a lot harder for an unsavoury female idiot to gain office than it is for the male equivalent. Each seems to me to be objectively superior to most or all of the men who’ve already announced, or are said to be considering, their candidacy. Each also comes with less baggage than the unfortunate Hillary, who had to bear that special female burden of being smeared with her wayward husband’s infidelities, as well as her association with some of the more unpleasant aspects of Democratic policy during Bill Clinton’s Presidency, particularly the now widely reviled neo-liberal economics, and the “get tough on crime” measures that alienated the African American community, a crucial Democrat demographic.
It’s also tempting to tout all of them as being more “likeable” than Hillary, who perhaps did have the odd brittle personality trait, but this would be a mistake for a couple of reasons. First, when female politicians are judged on how “likeable” they are, what’s really being measured is how well they manage to seek power without looking like they actually want power and believe they should wield it – that is, how much they can seem to remain “feminine” while doing what men always do. Female “likeability” as a criterion is something we need to do away with, not quantify, and I’m hoping it ceases to be so much of a factor. Second, to the extent it remains a factor, just about all female politicians, Hillary included, are said to be highly likeable right up until they seek a higher office than the one they inhabit, at which point they become “pushy”, “aggressive”, “nasty”, and, always a favourite, “shrill”. My guess is that the more serious the chances for any of these women appear, the less likeable they’ll be. There’s no point in courting the segment of the electorate that puts stock in a woman’s likeability. Once she’s getting somewhere, they won’t like her at all.
This brings us to the nub of it: no matter how much, other things being equal, a given woman would seem to be far and away the best candidate, other things aren’t equal, and the overriding priority simply has to be the defeat of Donald Trump. We might want to run a woman because of the overdue justice that could be done if she won, but justice demands the expulsion of Donald above anything else. We might think that one of the female candidates has the best policy ideas, or is smartest, or has a leadership style we feel is better suited to the challenges of an increasingly diverse and fractious society, or we might even be tempted to go for it just on account of how delicious it would be if Trump, the quintessential pig of man, were ousted by a woman, yet always it comes back to the Prime Directive: Trump Must Be Expunged. All other considerations secondary. Nothing else can be allowed to matter.
Can a woman beat Trump?
Based on Hillary’s experience, one can’t help but doubt it. One of the harshest lessons of the 2016 campaign seems to be that the American electorate still dislikes the idea of a woman in charge, an attitude by no means restricted to men, according to the polling. Obama proved they were willing to vote for a black man, but dammit, they still won’t vote for a woman. If that really looks to be the case this time around, and there will undoubtedly be oodles of polling data to guide us as the primaries get under way, I suppose that ought to seal it. Being rid of The Trump is so overwhelmingly vital that we have to pick a man, if we really think only a man can do it. Right?
This makes me bitter.
I realized yesterday, when Kamala Harris declared, that I desperately want her to win. She’s tough, brilliant, oozing gravitas, and gives off an air of sheer competence the like of which one rarely sees in public officials. She is, you might say, serious shit. I can easily see her as Attorney General in a new Democratic administration, or Chief of Staff, and I can also easily see her as President. Moreover, as a Canadian and terrified citizen of the quivering, Trump-traumatized Western world, I can easily imagine her running US foreign policy, which matters more to us out here than it does to most Americans. My feeling is that neither Warren nor Gillibrand would have much aptitude for facing down foreign potentates or rallying demoralized allies in the international arena. While admittedly I don’t have much to substantiate it, my sense is that Harris would be a natural. It’s not just that she clearly won’t have any trouble gaining command over all the details and complexity, or climbing the learning curve. It’s that she exhibits just the sort of unwavering mettle that we need so desperately for America to once more project to the world. Just as Hillary would have done. Americans don’t seem to realize that if it’s tough you want, you don’t elect a whiny little bitch like Trump, you go for a woman who’s clawed her way to the top in the men’s rigged hierarchy.
One of the dumbest aspects of Trump’s election was the way people were duped into the misperception that Donald was a robust virile manly man, and Hillary, well, she was weak wasn’t she, physically frail and, let’s face It, just not tough enough. As if! Worried observers over on the opposite side of the Northern Hemisphere knew better.
A lot of theories have been floated as to why Vladimir Putin was so keen to see Donald beat Hillary in 2016. It seems obvious that he wanted to have leverage over the new President, something he’d never have with Clinton, and already possessed in spades with Trump. Trump was weak, stupid, and easily gulled. Trump would toe the Russian line on all sorts of issues, from sanctions to withdrawing from NATO. It’s also posited that Vlad knew that Trump would be a divisive disaster, weakening the American body politic. Yet here’s one factor I’m convinced was decisive, and which barely gets mentioned: Putin was frankly terrified of Hillary.
When Vlad looked at Hillary, he saw his worst nightmare. Here was a potential US President who’d be smarter than him, just as ruthless as him, utterly unafraid of him, in command of far, far more national power than him, and a foreign policy hawk who’d push hard to resist Russian ambitions, and indeed the survival of his own presidency, on every front. She’d demonstrated all of that in her tenure as Secretary of State. There’d be no quarter given by this tireless, unflappable, dauntingly resolute hardass. Sanctions would be strengthened, not weakened. NATO would be buttressed. A hard line would be drawn in the Ukraine, and Syria. Even though she was a Democrat, she was actually a lot more like what used to be a Republican, and would have no qualms about defence spending, or projecting power abroad. She didn’t shrink from it. She didn’t waver. Here at home, more cautious liberal observers were sometimes dismayed at Hillary’s hawkishness, but while somebody like me thought she was misguided to push so hard for, say, intervention in Libya, I believe Vlad saw it differently – all he thought, I’m convinced, was there’s iron in that woman.
I bet that if he gets a good look at Kamala, he’ll think the same thing.
I suppose I may change my opinion as the campaign progresses, and we learn a great deal more about Ms. Harris, and how she carries herself and handles adversity, but as I write this I have no doubts about her ability to be a good, solid domestic President, one who’ll pursue enlightened policy in a pragmatic way, use the bully pulpit effectively, and get bills through Congress. It seems to me that she has ample stuff to lead, and to keep a grip on what would likely be an unusually capable cabinet full of very smart and powerful advisors – Christ, can you imagine that, after the Trump Fiasco? If I’m honest, though, what really got to me viscerally was watching her interrogate Trump appointees in Congress. Prosecutor that she is, she used language like a rapier, cut through the bullshit, and looked over the desk with a steely-eyed determination and obvious intelligence that would be frankly terrifying if it was you getting the Harris treatment. A Kamala workover was something to see. It would have been even better, except those subject to her questioning were lucky – whenever she was on the verge of tearing some Trumpian liar a new one, the Republican committee chair would spring to the rescue and shut her down.
I watched her at work, and I knew: Vlad would hate Kamala Harris. He would despise her. She could mop the floor with the likes of him, and he’d know it.
Goldberg’s piece, linked above, makes a number of good arguments why a female candidate is not as risky as the 2016 experience might lead you to believe, including that women are now energized and turning on Trump in a way they didn’t in the last election. I’m choosing to think she’s right. I used to be in the “can’t risk a woman” camp. No longer.
Anyway, I’ve been contending for a while now that Trump won’t even be the Republican candidate in 2020. My guess is that’ll he’ll have resigned or been tossed out by that point. If not, he could well face a successful challenge in the primaries. Why make a decision based only on the imperative of beating a guy who likely won’t be there?
Fine, you’d respond, but we can’t really rely on Donald being gone, and we’ll probably have to settle on a front runner before we know how that’s going to turn out.
Yeah, I guess. Think of it, though. Trump (or whiter than white Caucasian Mike Pence, in my predicted scenario) whipped by a woman of colour. Putin soiling his drawers. Friends and allies all over the world rejoicing. A chance to see how a woman governs a superpower…
Damn the torpedoes. Harris, 2020. There’s iron in that woman.