Gender issue fades for candidate Clinton

March 09, 2007|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- It's been almost a year since that well-known political pundit, Sharon Stone, explained why Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton couldn't win the presidency. "A woman should be past her sexuality when she runs," intoned Ms. Stone. "Hillary still has sexual power, and I don't think people will accept that."

I never figured out whether this was a compliment or an insult to the 59-year-old New York Democrat.

Of course, this was only one of innumerable pink grids put over Senator Clinton's campaign.

Her announcement was preceded and followed by endless stories on whether America was "ready" for a female president. Every move she makes, every breath she takes, every outfit she wears, she is stalked by the media looking for clues to the female electoral cycle.

This was an inevitable part of being the First Serious Female Candidate for President. And Mrs. Clinton has said repeatedly, "The fact that I'm a woman, the fact that I'm a mom, is part of who I am." Her candidacy was bound to have a "You go, girl!" edge.

It was no surprise that Mrs. Clinton announced her candidacy in a Web cast from a living room decorated in Early Suburban Soccer Mom. It's no surprise that she has just launched a kind of girlfriend's social networking campaign.

And it's no surprise to see her campaigning under the slogan: "Let the Conversation Begin."

But something is happening on the long, tortured path to the first primary. Mrs. Clinton has been de-sexed - excuse me, Sharon: de-gendered. She already is seen less as the female candidate for president and more as the establishment candidate.

She's becoming less a messenger of historic change and more a messenger of old politics.

It was once impossible to be both a woman and an establishment candidate. But in this primary, Mrs. Clinton is outflanked on the left by both Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards. The "wicked witch of the left," the "designated devil," the "Lady MacBeth" whose image blesses the baby onesies sold at conservative conventions ("Hillary Scares Me") is now the centrist in the Democratic field.

This has put the Hillary-hating industry into a stock market swoon. The "vast right-wing conspiracy" is losing traction. Even conservative Richard Mellon Scaife has closed up his ATM for Clinton Bashers Inc. She's now, for better and/or worse, positioned less as a scary feminist and more as a calibrating centrist, less as an uppity woman and more as the programmed scion of the establishment.

Senator Obama has become the thoughtful, ruminative, philosopher-king candidate. But in the process, Senator Clinton has come to look like the strong candidate. This may be caused in part by her refusal to apologize for her vote on the Iraq war, a decision that many in hyperactive punditry regard as a huge mistake. But there's a subtext. Like it or not, it is part of this woman's morphing into the tough guy in the race.

Mr. Obama has also matched or even trumped Mrs. Clinton on the "historic" front. Gradually, her image as "the woman" faded to her image as the "experienced" candidate. Not to mention the candidate most ready to take on the Republican attack machine.

She didn't choose her status as establishment candidate any more than she chose being attacked from the left by Hollywood mogul David Geffen. But what better enemy in the race for votes among the mainstream parents who regard the Hollywood culture as their opponent? And what better position for a woman running in the general election as a leader?

There is a certain irony in sticking a politics-as-usual label on the first serious female contender. Or seeing a breakthrough candidacy cast as same-old. Democrats thirsty for change and hostile to the war may well see Mr. Obama as the fresh voice and Mrs. Clinton as old guard.

But have you noticed how the arguments about whether she's "electable" have dimmed? Have you noticed how the chatter about this woman's leadership ability has faded? Have you noticed how the stories about whether America is "ready" for a woman have receded?

Is Mrs. Clinton running as a woman? I remember when Pat Schroeder was asked that question and quipped, "I didn't know I had other options!" But Mrs. Clinton is already less the "female candidate" and more the "candidate."

And the "conversation" has barely begun.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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