A Female President? Advice for Hillary and Condi

ABC recently began airing promos for their upcoming show, “Commander in Chief.” This, of course, is the show about the first female President (played by Geena Davis). The debut of this show may further fuel the long-standing debate regarding whether or not the media shapes culture, or vice versa. This show may also, in some small way, influence attitudes concerning the political futures of Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton.

Only in Hollywood can you be “cast” as President. In the real world, you’ve first got to get elected.

Speaking of which, the political futures of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton have been analyzed to death over the last several months. Every possible angle has been covered, except discussing the role gender might play should they decide to run for President.

I’ve heard lots of people opine about how Hillary is too liberal, too cold or too calculating to win. Some say Condi isn’t pro-life enough to win (should she decide to change her mind about running). But I can’t recall anybody discussing their more obvious characteristic—the fact that they would be females running for an office that has been occupied exclusively by men. This historic fact deserves at least to be mentioned.

Ignoring the Obvious

Because governing is contingent on winning election, the first question to consider is: What role will gender play in the campaign? I think that’s a fair question to ask because whether it’s Hillary, Condi or someone else it won’t be long before we see a female win a major party’s nomination and run for President.

Of course, this issue hasn’t just popped up out of nowhere. There are plenty of female governors and members of Congress who have paved the way—but I believe voters make a big distinction between the office of President and other elected offices. Most recently, Elizabeth Dole ran for the Republican nomination in 2000. Leaders such as Dole have contributed by making the idea of a female presidential candidate not seem so strange. Soon, a woman will win the nomination of a major party.

Yet, there is no doubt that gender still plays a role in the way voters make up their minds. A Westhill Partners/Hotline poll conducted this spring found the best possibility for Republicans to win the next presidential election is to run a Republican woman against a male Democrat.

According to this blind poll, all things being equal, a Republican woman would trounce a Democrat man 46% to 27%. According to National Review’s analysis, the reason is that a female Republican would pull in the Republican base—plus Democrat and independent women.

The other scenarios show a Democrat victory, but never as large as in this scenario. Republican women would not peel off to vote for a Democrat woman over a Republican man. For this reason, it seems more likely that our first female President will be a Republican.

Gender Plays a Role

So clearly, gender matters when some voters determine how they will vote. And in the case of this early poll, it matters so much that it could actually be the difference between winning and losing the White House.

As a female political operative, I’ve helped female candidates win office, and helped defeat one. In every case, gender differences (as well as many other factors) influenced our campaign strategy, to one degree or another, because gender plays a role in the way the candidates market themselves, be it conscious or subconsciously.

The 1984 presidential race was the first time a female ran for Vice President (George H.W. Bush vs. Geraldine Ferraro). Granted, nobody votes for the Vice President, so it would be unfair to imply Ronald Reagan’s landslide had anything to do with Walter Mondale’s running mate. However, Bush and Ferraro did have a debate, and I think it’s appropriate to examine the debate.

Bush was reportedly apprehensive about debating a female. Predictably, the crowd came to its feet in applause when Ferarro said to Bush, “Don’t patronize me… .” This move was meant to make Bush appear like he was, well, “picking on the girl.” Hillary Clinton capitalized on this maneuver much more effectively, when Rick Lazio encroached on her space by leaving his podium and insisting she sign a pledge during a debate in 2000. Of course, she did have Lazio to thank for the screw-up, didn’t she?

In the case of the Ferraro debate, Bush later said he believed a lot of females in the press corps were rooting for Ferraro. Whether or not that was true, it probably suggests that gender differences played a role in the debate, if for no other reason than that it caused him to think about it. Bush also was overheard the next day at a rally saying he “kicked a little ass” in the debate, so it must not have bothered him too much.

In Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking, author Kathleen Hall Jamieson makes an interesting point about the debate that I think is applicable to Hillary. She believes that the type of empathic communication that leaders such as Reagan (and later Bill Clinton) mastered was previously thought of as “feminine” communication. In other words, she argues that all the things you and I consider to be effective communication styles: “Feeling one’s pain,” telling stories, etc., are attributes that come more naturally to females. She argues that until the television age, politicians relied more on logic than emotion, speeches were more lectures than they were dialogues, and speakers (for lack of microphones) had to bellow their message out.

The Masculine Message

Regarding the Ferraro-Bush debate, Jamieson goes on to make an even more interesting argument. She believes that, in order to be perceived as serious and credible, women candidates have imitated the least effective communication styles of men. In short, she is arguing the “Only Nixon can go to China” irony: Men, such as Bill Clinton, can be secure enough to show their feminine side (empathy, story telling, etc.). Women, in order to prove themselves, are forced to use the less attractive “masculine” style (logic, rhetoric, confrontation). Jamieson believes Ferraro lost the debate because she overcompensated—tried too hard to prove she was tough enough to be there, and thus, blew it.

Now, I realize all this seems a bit philosophical, but bear with me. When you compare the communication styles of Bill Clinton vs. Hillary Clinton, it starts to make sense.

Jamieson would argue that, being a man, Clinton can afford to be empathic, while Hillary can’t get away with it. (When you consider this book was written in 1988, it seems all the more prophetic.)

I am happy we have arrived at a point where we will soon have a female running for President. As a Republican, I sincerely hope that it is Condi, rather than Hillary. The best advice for a female candidate for President—whether that be Hillary, Condi or whomever—is to embrace the Bill Clinton/Ronald Reagan model of communications. Don’t be afraid to show your warm and caring side. If it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander.