gender, language, politics



“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Walt Whitman.


I know I said in my last snort that Hillary Clinton can’t win, no matter what she does. But maybe there’s a way — a new way.


Her less than stellar performance in the most recent Democratic debate, along with her slippage in recent polls, raises a question: what is HRC doing that she shouldn’t be doing? And vice versa? 


She started out her campaign hinting that she was experimenting with something new: a non-confrontational debate and discourse style, and an eagerness to speak as a woman, first and foremost to women, about topics that are (or should be) of interest to everyone, but are conventionally considered “women’s issues”: education, pay equality, reproductive rights – the whole megillah. She brought many of those topics up forcefully in the first debate, of which she was universally declared the winner. And she and her principal contender, Bernie Sanders, were refreshingly civil, even nice, to each other.


So you could say that, in that debate, Clinton did both show and tell: She told us she was a new kind of candidate with new kinds of issues, and she showed us a new and different way of running for president.


Recently, though, her job has become tougher as the polls show her and Sanders drawing closer together. So some of her advisers apparently believe that she needs a new strategy, indeed needs to create a new Hillary: she needs, they feel, to refashion herself as a “normal” – i.e., male – candidate, behaving like a male, arguing male issues.


But HRC is not a normal presidential candidate, even less so than Bernie Sanders, so she should not conduct a normal campaign. The more she makes herself into a typical, negative campaigner, the less attractive she’s going to appear to voters. That’s why she did best in the first debate, where she was different — positive and friendly — and worst in the last, where she took on Bernie on Bernie’s terms, that is, according to the ancient male-based rules.


She should rethink what she is doing and why. Her message should include a covert narrative: she is running as a woman because there are things men don’t know and can’t do (maybe she shouldn’t say this out loud), and women see things differently and do things differently. The conventional wisdom of politics is that men’s issues are everyone’s issues, and women’s issues are “special interests.” But in truth women’s issues are everyone’s issues, and it’s high time they found their way into the political discourse. It would seem that the only way to do so is through getting a woman to be the one creating the most significant political discourse. Getting into a snit about guns (as she did at the January 17 debate) is totally counterproductive: there are extremely few voters for whom that is the decisive issue. Worse, she unfairly represented Sanders in that faceoff and that only led wavering liberal Democrats to distrust her. Since there is already a perception – irrational and unfair, but alive – that she is untrustworthy, why add fuel to the fire?


Her message should be: I am the “change” candidate, I am the new new thing. In our dangerous and unpredictable new world, I see things from a new perspective and will do things in a new way because I am not like any of my predecessors, because a woman is a different thing and vive la différence. And she should show this rather than tell it by campaigning in a new language, one of coming together rather than driving apart.


So I think she is seriously wrong to play the same game her male adversaries are playing, the one they have always played — it only encourages the view of her that she is inauthentic, not female and not male, and not trustworthy; and besides, campaigning the old way makes her into the same-old same-old, who loses points vs. the sparkly new Bernie.


Many people (including those women who are disaffected from her or at best are for her but unenthusiastically) feel that she projects as more of the same, the tired old political verities, at a time when America desperately needs something new and voters want to try something new. Sanders speaks for many of these voters: he’s new (Socialist, Jewish, and rumpled) and therefore he’s exciting. Clinton has allowed Sanders to become the candidate of change, when that should by rights be the role she is playing.


The fact is that Sanders is a one-topic candidate: he’s new and exciting on economic issues, but he has much less to say about all the other crucial topics of the day: not only global problems (terrorism being only one), but domestic issues like gender equality. When he is forced to talk about these, he becomes impatient, terse, and tiring, and much more predictable than Clinton. But he gets the credit for being sparkly and new, and she the disparagement as the ho-hum last year’s model.


Sanders gets credit for being new and exciting, when mostly he is not; Clinton gets accused of being both too new and too old: she is heard incorrectly because she is that new thing we don’t know how to respond to properly, the power-seeking woman; but because she has been around at the highest levels for a quarter of a century, she becomes, in the eyes and ears of too many, old, ready to be traded in for this year’s model. In order to overcome this worse than simplistic perspective before it’s too late, Clinton has to – immediately – take control of her message, get rid of her people who are pushing her into the safe and same-old trap, and emerge from her chrysalis as something new and exciting: a female candidate for president. She needs new people who can make her new again. Or she needs to figure out by herself how to make us see her as she really is.


And at the same time, while she innovates by offering us in both style and content that edgy new creature, the female candidate, she also must present herself as experienced, but in a good way: a tried and tested person who, by virtue of having played so many major roles, knows how things work and how to get them done; knows how to function in a wide array of settings; knows what is apt to work, and what isn’t, from experience. Experience, she must say, is a good thing. In a snake-infested world, experience tells you how to tread. The outsider is thrilling, but like so many thrilling types, lethal in the scary world we are forced to inhabit.


Clinton has to do something truly other and all her own.


I know she can do it. I hope she will do it.