In Iowa, Hillary Shows She’s Learned Something About Running While Female

Clinton staffers watch Monday's speech in the Burlington, Iowa, office.
Clinton staffers watch Monday's speech in the Burlington, Iowa, office. Photo: MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images

For all those Democrats who fretted for the past year about the probability of a listless primary, and for any who (inanely) predicted a “coronation” for Hillary Clinton (I mean, just as a point of fact, in the U.S. we don’t hand out president crowns, and especially not to women), Monday night put every fear to rest. Democrats could not have asked for a more riveting nail-biter. As of this writing, it’s still not clear whether Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton “won,” and I gather, after eleventy hours of listening to polling analysis, that it may not be clear for another eleventy hours.

That’s pretty thrilling. Democrats have two candidates about whom voters feel passionate. The win/tie is tremendous for Sanders, the long-shot challenger from the left. But it’s also pretty great for Clinton, who could have decisively lost Iowa but hung on, and who also became the first Clinton (and the first woman ever) not to have outright lost the state.

Clinton’s approach tonight — her ballsy power-play move of stepping over Republican winner Ted Cruz’s victory speech, and her happy-warrior tone — showed a marked contrast from her 2008 loss in Iowa, a night when she came in nine points behind Barack Obama and one point behind John Edwards. Back then, her concession was dismal, wan, practically consumptive. Eight years later, she was energetic, brassy, and seemed to show she’s learning something about navigating the choppy waters of running for president while female.

The key thing she did in her “sigh of relief” speech on Monday was right her flailing message about health-care reform, which in recent days had gone off the rails for her in a very familiar way.

She was firm and positive in her framing of her goal: “I know that we can finish the job of universal health-care coverage for every man, woman, and child!” she shouted affirmatively and warmly, in sharp contrast to the sharper tone she’d deployed in recent days, culminating in a YouTube clip that was swiftly dubbed by her critics “Hillary’s Mean Scream.” In it, Clinton had bellowed about how “people who have health emergencies can’t wait for us to have some theoretical debate about some better idea that will never, ever come to pass!”

Clinton, who has in one way or another spent decades of her career pushing for universal health-care reform, was expressing her obvious lack of patience for a candidate whose idea of starting from scratch, rather than building on the reforms of the flawed but hard-won Affordable Care Act, strikes her as pie-in-the-sky.

But in failing to present an upbeat take on her disagreement with Sanders, Clinton had sounded like a scold, the disciplinarian, the mean mommy, the pragmatic downer — all versions of a feminized role that she and many, many women have long found it incredibly difficult to escape.

Recall the days following the 2008 Iowa caucus, when the media took advantage of Clinton’s defeat to let loose with their resentment and animosity toward her. That was when conservative Marc Rudov told Fox News that Clinton lost because “When Barack Obama speaks, men hear ‘Take off for the future!’ When Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear ‘Take out the garbage!’” It was in the days after Iowa that Clinton infamously got asked about how voters believed her to be “the most experienced and the most electable” candidate but “are hesitating on the likability issue.” In late January, columnist Mike Barnicle told a laughing all-male panel on Morning Joe that Clinton’s challenge was that she looks “like everyone’s first wife standing outside of probate court.”

What was true in ’08 remains true this year. From her entrance into the campaign, Clinton has been tagged as unlikable, as the practical buzzkill, the boring one with the wonky facts and figures and experience who’s going to show up and tell you that your big plans are impossible, but that she’s thought of some smaller and more doable fixes. Meanwhile, Sanders, who entered the race shouting righteously and correctly about a system that’s broken, has, as his campaign has strengthened, become the unlikely vehicle of idealistic hopes and dreams for America — Free college! Free health care! A $15 minimum wage! The breakup of the big banks!

His vision of revolution, as Bryce Covert wrote in Monday’s New York Times, differs significantly from Clinton’s approach, which Covert described accurately as “pragmatism incarnate.” Critics argue that his promises have no chance of coming to fruition, but their soaring scale — and the righteous ideals to which they speak — make him a candidate it is infinitely easier to feel emotionally inspired by. Clinton’s realism may in fact be one of the reasons that her supporters believe that she’d make a more prepared and effective commander-in-chief than Sanders — something that in fact provokes rational excitement, especially by those thrilled at the idea of an experienced, capable, hard-assed Democratic woman president. But hers is not an easy pose to pull off, if you’re trying to win the hearts of America. In fact, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported tonight that many young voters in Iowa had told her that their decision between Clinton and Sanders had come down to head versus heart, respectively.

That hurts, and it falls into a very old, very well-worn gendered pattern, in which women — understanding that making promises they cannot back up will not get them taken seriously and that they must prove themselves extra-competent in order to be understood as basically competent — become the nose-to-the-grindstone wonks, easily compared to know-it-all bores like Tracy Flick and Hermione Granger. They’re the wet blankets, the ones all too acquainted with the limitations imposed by the world, and all too eager to explain their various ideas for working around them. Men, and especially white men, whose claims to public or political power are more easily understood, are permitted a slightly looser approach.

There’s been some talk about how a female candidate could never be as scruffy as Bernie Sanders, as uncombed and unkempt. A woman could never be as grumpy as Bernie, as left-leaning as Bernie, as uncooperative with party machinery as Bernie. And that stuff is true enough. But the bigger truth is that what Bernie does, to great acclaim, that Hillary Clinton could never do is make big promises of institutional overthrow, tug on our imaginative heartstrings by laying out a future that might not be grounded in reality, and urge a revolution.

Here is a truth about America: No one likes a woman who yells loudly about revolution.

And no, it’s not just this woman. This is a paradigm; it’s why Mom is the disciplinarian and Dad is the fun guy, why women remain the brains and organizational workhorses behind social movements while men get to be the gut-ripping orators, why so many women still manage campaigns and so many men are still candidates.

So here we are! On our way to New Hampshire, a state that inspiring Bernie Sanders is overwhelmingly favored to win. But for one of the first times, in her speech in Iowa, I saw Clinton work effectively to turn the pragmatic ship around, to take what she wants to say — that Sanders’s soaring promises are empty but her more modest proposals might come to pass — and make it sound almost exciting.