Last spring, she held a press conference with her two most appalling Christian-right colleagues, Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, to campaign for $90 million in federal funding of research to prove that the Internet and other electronic media are satanic, and last summer she called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the secret sex scenes embedded in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. If she sincerely believes children’s trashy pop culture is an issue of major federal-government concern, her priorities are goofy, and if not, she looks like a shameless panderer to cultural conservatives on matters of minor consequence.
Such gratuitous moves to the right tend to make all voters doubt her more nuanced and (probably) sincere positions on genuinely important issues. People think she’s being weaselly even if she isn’t. Like when she told a pro-choice crowd that abortion is “a sad, even tragic choice.” That was a worthwhile Sister Souljah moment, smart and effective. Her view of Iraq has been consistent and, to me, convincing—the administration was reckless and incompetent in managing the occupation, but immediate withdrawal or a rigid timetable would also be reckless, and the U.S. must now pay a still-higher price to try to prevent a Zarqawiite victory and Talibanic rogue state. But again, people mistrust her sincerity.
Gratuitous moves to the right make all voters doubt her (probably) sincere positions on important issues.
It’s the “authenticity” problem. Bill Clinton is probably every bit as calculating as his wife, but he could mitigate it with his robust charm and half-fake, half-real sincerity. Only the people who made a partisan point of hating him didn’t like Clinton at least a little bit. The same was true of Ronald Reagan. And there you have it: a happy-go-lucky Hollywood divorcé, then a junk-food-loving horndog, and now a frat-boyish former drunk and ne’er-do-well, all three of them mischievous repentant sinners and all of them (yes) sort of hot—American voters have been habitually choosing a certain kind of distinctly American person as president, and Hillary Clinton is not that kind of person.
In other words, her fundamental problem is that she’s too unlike her husband. In the last eleven presidential elections, every winning Democrat has had a southern accent—and, not coincidentally, a Democrat has beaten a Republican among male voters only when the nominee was a Southerner. For the last quarter-century, majorities of suburbanites and small-town residents have voted Republican in every election except ones in which Bill Clinton was running, and both times, he cut the usual 10 and 20 and 30 percent GOP margins among whites and rural voters to just 1 and 2 percent.
This next time around, even the un-Americans here in our blue, blue city—we who voted for stiffs like Michael Dukakis— will not be immune to the charms of a candidate whose humanity and humor and impulse for honesty are plain. We disagree with John McCain on abortion, gay rights, school prayer, and gun control. But his personality and character are why clear-eyed members of the liberal elite (off the top of my head: Barry Diller, Tom Brokaw, Jon Stewart) are so fond of him. They may agree with Hillary Clinton on pretty much everything, but . . . they don’t dig her.
How unenthusiastic is her natural local base? One plugged-in Democrat I know, a marketing guy who used to work in Washington politics, tried to convince me that Christopher Dodd—Christopher Dodd!—would be more electable than Hillary. On the other hand, I know of just two people in my address book who are true Hillary devotees, and both of them happen to be smart, conscientious, successful professional women who were born in 1947 and graduated from elite northeastern women’s colleges in 1969 . . . Hillary’s bio exactly.
Maybe her presidential candidacy will produce a bit of a gender gap even here, in the ostensibly gender-neutral ranks of Democratic cosmopolites. We are accustomed to imagining that the gap exists only out in the suburbs and the provinces, between the Marge and Homer Simpsons and the Peggy and Hank Hills. (We also think of it running only in one direction—yet until Goldwater frightened them in 1964, women voted more Republican than men, and they didn’t turn sharply left until Ronald Reagan frightened them again in 1980.) Whether or not Hillary is elected president, the outcome will be attributed mainly—and correctly—to her gender. There is unconscious sexism in the system, in our heads. The acceptable stylistic template for national female politicians is much more constricted than that for men—Ann Richards is about the only senator or governor in the scampish Reagan-Clinton-Bush mold. Instead, women must be stiff-necked, essentially First Lady–like—Liddy Dole or Condoleezza Rice, Dianne Feinstein or Hillary Clinton. Which in turn makes them less attractive presidential candidates. If she loses, sexism will be part of the reason. And if she wins, it will be because an unprecedented supermajority of women vote for her.