The Sanders Campaign’s Sexist New Argument: Hillary Tries Too Hard

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From Tracy Flick to Hillary Clinton, female ambition isn't pretty.
From Tracy Flick to Hillary Clinton, female ambition isn’t pretty.Photo: Getty Images, Paramount Pictures

On Tuesday night, following Bernie Sanders’s big win in the Wisconsin primary, his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, understandably jazzed in the midst of a victory lap, said a really stupid sexist thing about Hillary Clinton.

When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked him about the increasingly aggressive rhetoric between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, Weaver averred that his campaign was prepared to play hardball. He then sounded a warning to the former secretary of State and her supporters, suggesting that they not get too critical of Sanders or his supporters. “Don’t destroy the Democratic Party to satisfy the secretary’s ambitions to become president of the United States,” Weaver said.

It was a small comment, in every sense. A throwaway bit of nastiness coming from a campaign manager in the late stages of a long and hotly contested primary battle. But the line, which overtly cast Clinton’s political ambition as a destructive force and framed her famous drive and tenacity as unappealing, malevolent traits, played on long-standing assumptions about how ambition — a quality that is required for powerful men and admired in them — looks far less attractive on their female counterparts, and especially on their female competitors.

Weaver’s language made explicit a message that has, in more inchoate form, been churning through the Sanders campaign’s messaging in recent weeks. As Sanders’s staffers spin the story of how they got to this point in the race — with a candidate whose success has been unexpected and thrilling, especially with young Democrats and independents, but who has failed to win over voters of color and older voters, and remains badly behind his tough opponent by nearly every metric — they seem to have been working on a new framing of Hillary, one that relies on old biases about how we prefer women to conduct themselves and how little we like those who flout those preferences.

So far during this Democratic primary contest (which has been respectful and high-minded compared to the GOP side), Team Sanders’s depiction of Hillary has been of an unimaginative pragmatist, a hope-dashing incrementalist, and a corporatist too beholden to the financial sector to ever regulate or reform it in the way that will be required of our next president. These critiques have been tied to Clinton’s gender in various complicated ways, sure, but they’ve also been rooted in reality — she is a pragmatic incrementalist who’s accepted money from banks that she shouldn’t have! There are compelling arguments about the wisdom of the first two qualities and really nothing good to say about the third, but there you have it.

Of course, Weaver’s assertion that Clinton is ambitious is also rooted in reality. But in offering it up so baldly as a negative, in the weeks during which the campaign should be mounting its final argument, Weaver seemed to be suggesting that the argument against Clinton has come down, in part, to this: She’s Tracy Flick. And no one likes the woman who tries too hard, who competes with too much intensity, who applies too much focus to her own advancement. It’s a message that some of Weaver’s colleagues have been nosing around for a couple of weeks, but Weaver’s comments seemed to make the argument cohere. It goes like this: Bernie Sanders is a kind man whose relaxed and respectful approach to power has led him to come in second to a woman who works too hard and wants to triumph too much; Hillary’s unembarrassed commitment to winning the race not only makes her unappealing but could be ruinous to the party she’s vying to lead.

The Sanders campaign began to lay down this track last week, while their candidate was racking up wins (with massive margins of victory) over Clinton in caucus states, but still not catching up to her pledged-delegate count.

Tad Devine, Sanders’s senior campaign strategist, first tried to explain Clinton’s continued dominance in a bizarre disquisition about the candidates’ unevenly matched commitment to winning. On a call with reporters, Devine proclaimed that Clinton’s “grasp … on the nomination” was based “almost entirely on … victories in states where Bernie Sanders did not compete.” The states he named included Texas, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, and Louisiana. Sanders would have won the southern Super Tuesday states, Devine’s thinking seemed to go, if he’d only tried harder in those states; the inversion of that point is that Clinton only won because she tried so hard.

This was a dog of an argument, one that Rachel Maddow handily demolished by pointing out that Sanders had, in fact, competed pretty hard in the Super Tuesday states — that his campaign had often been first on the ground, opened more offices, and built more robust campaign operations in Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, and Virginia than Clinton’s had. He just lost anyway.

But within a few days, the campaign had trotted out a more refined version of their theory. In a piece published on Monday in the New York Times, Sanders’s advisers performed a kind of pre-postmortem on his campaign. They diagnosed its flaw as originating with Sanders’s overly gentle touch, his mensch-y lack of appetite for competition, and reluctance to land hard punches on his opponent. If only he’d competed earlier, more relentlessly, with the kind of ferocious determination exhibited by his opponent, he might be winning now. “Competing aggressively against Mrs. Clinton in 2015 was not part of the Sanders strategy when he announced his candidacy last April,” the Times reported after conversations with his inner circle. Instead, he remained committed to his duties in the Senate, while Hillary, who did not hold public office in 2015, spent her time “working around the clock to campaign, raise money, nail down endorsements and develop policy plans.”

Again, there’s truth in this characterization: Sanders surely didn’t expect his campaign to be as electrically successful as it’s been, and likely didn’t enter the race with the expectation that he’d be running a dogged campaign 24/7 for more than a year. Meanwhile, Clinton, whose chief personality traits include her lack of interest in sleep or ever removing her nose from the grindstone, had already run and lost one very long, very tough, very expensive campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008. She knew all too well what she was getting into and surely did hit the ground mid-marathon. But the casting of that marathon — the “working ‘round the clock” to raise money, garner support, and develop policy positions — as a kind of unfair advantage was pretty weird. That stuff is, after all, fundamental to the job of running for the presidency. How was the version of the story in which Clinton was doing that job, and Sanders wasn’t, anything but a point against Sanders? Because a portrait of a woman trying too hard to do any kind of work, being driven by professional determination and a thirst for victory, is one that rarely flatters that woman.

That theme was audible again earlier this week when Sanders campaign spokesperson Michael Briggs said testily of an April 14 debate in Brooklyn, the scheduling of which entailed the shifting of a planned Bernie rally, “We hope the debate will be worth the inconvenience for thousands of New Yorkers who … will have to change their schedules to accommodate Secretary Clinton’s jam-packed, high-dollar, coast-to-coast schedule of fundraisers all over the country.” The emphasis here was supposed to be on the high-priced fund-raising events Clinton is conducting around the country, events at which she’s collecting cash for her own campaign and for the Democratic Party for both big-picture party-building reasons and self-serving party-building reasons. But it was hard not to hear Briggs’s sneering at the super-busy, transcontinental nature of her campaign commitments. It was derision that could have been dialog from an ‘80s backlash movie about a workaholic, shoulder-padded career woman, always on the road but empty inside, rather than about a woman who’s keeping a schedule that is entirely appropriate for a person on the verge of being the Democratic nominee for president.

And so, after days of these characterizations, Weaver’s glib association of Clinton’s ambition to win the nomination with a force destructive enough to ruin her party didn’t feel like a flub. It felt like he was the guy who gave away the bigger game.

As voters in big states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and California, get ready to cast their votes, the men managing Sanders’s campaign (though notably, so far, not Sanders himself) are offering up a vision of their formidable opponent — the one who’s so far won more states, more delegates, and 2 million more votes than their boss — that reads, seriously, like an old Onion article. You may remember it. It’s the one that’s headlined “Hillary Clinton Is Too Ambitious to Be the First Female President” and includes critiques like “She spends almost all her time these days going to fundraising events dedicated to raising money for—you guessed it—Hillary Clinton,” and “it just wouldn’t feel right to see someone who is so politically calculating win those precious 270 electoral votes in the next election,” and, of course, “she’s stayed in the race, blatantly ignoring the wishes of some people.”

It’s too bad this is where Sanders’s invigorating campaign, one that is passionately supported by many ambitious feminist women, may be turning in the final stretch: to a depiction of a female rival that is reliant on some of the very double standards that have helped to ensure that there have been too few female rivals — and no female victors — in presidential politics to date.