How can a woman be labeled the `establishment candidate'?

October 05, 2007|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- This is the High Risk Season of presidential politics, a danger zone for front-runners when the media attention is not on the inevitability of falling leaves but the possibility of falling stars.

All summer, the story line was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's steady-as-you-go campaign. After one debate or another, the New York Democrat was described as "commanding," "knowledgeable," "experienced." Now even Rudolph W. Giuliani and Fred Thompson are pleading their case for the Republican nomination on the claim that they alone can beat her.

This image of a candidate who has passed the presidential readiness test wooed more voters to her side. She's now leading the Democratic field by 33 points. But this hasn't endeared her to political reporters. The one reliable media bias is not pro-liberal or pro-conservative, pro-Democrat or pro-Republican. It is pro-knock-down-drag-out campaign.

Thus, we now enter the season when the journalistic pack, including those who rail against pack journalism, howls in anxiety at the prospect of a front-runner loping to the finish line. The colors are changing and the headlines are, too. They now read: "Can Clinton Be Stopped?" "Can Clinton's `Inevitability' Be Erased?" "How to Stop Hillary" and "Clinton Leads Now, But Race Isn't Over."

We are heirs and heiresses to a century of speculation on whether Americans would ever vote for a woman. I have a Wonder Woman poster from 1943 imagining the first woman president - 1,000 years in the future.

When Mrs. Clinton first entered the race, the story line had a pink border. Those same headlines asked and asked and asked: "Is the Country Ready for a Woman President?"

It's pretty stunning that in less than a year, the question has morphed from whether a woman is "electable" to whether she's "stoppable."

It's even more remarkable that Mrs. Clinton is now seen less as the female candidate than the establishment candidate.

I began noticing the degendering - forgive the word - of Mrs. Clinton last March. About then, the right wing's favorite "radical feminist socialist" was becoming the left wing's "politics as usual." Now, as the High Risk Season opens, she's framed less for making history than for perpetuating a dynasty. After a millennium as political outsiders, how is it possible that the serious female contender is cast - and even castigated - as the insider?

Remember that Mrs. Clinton has not escaped the pink microscope. Who can forget the V-neck that launched a thousand treatises on the meaning of cleavage? Now cleavage coverage has been followed by cackle coverage, those endless deconstructions of her laugh.

The stakes and styles are still different for women. Elizabeth Janeway once predicted that the first female president would be a Republican. She'd defuse her sex by conservatism. Mrs. Clinton is no Republican, nor is she Margaret Thatcher. But women walk a fine line to erase a gender line.

So this is where Mrs. Clinton is: walking that line. While Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois gets praise for making history, she gets points for experience. When John Edwards outflanks her on the left, this "polarizing figure" settles deeper into the comforting center. It's the best place for a woman in the general election.

But at the same time, the media are clamoring for action - Can Hillary Be Stopped? - many Democratic primary voters are just plain clamoring. So there's some danger in typecasting the first woman as the old guard.

This is an emblem of our era. We've gone straight from pre-feminism to post-feminism without stopping to experience the real thing.

A woman in politics was once automatically seen as a change agent but too much of an outsider to entrust with the Oval Office. We've still never had a female president. But now, the case against Mrs. Clinton is that she's too much of an insider?

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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