Last week, we looked at the way Hillary Clinton’s Internet supporters are making a sustained push to turn the battle for the Democratic nomination into a referendum on sexism. The apparent goal was to mute any criticism of Clinton’s policies, or her political past, and explain the rising opposition to her candidacy as the sinister effect of widespread misogyny. As I mentioned then, it looks like a smart tactic on paper—Clinton’s ties to the banking industry, her vote for the war on Iraq, her support for free trade agreements, and her decades-long opposition to gay marriage all leave her vulnerable to an increasingly progressive left wing. Against Bernie Sanders, she’s bound to look like a centrist candidate, and centrist is not playing well in the 2016 election. By shifting the discussion to sexism, her supporters could dodge direct comparisons to Sanders, and try to re-define the narrative.
It especially made sense on the Internet, which is the domain of the young. Exit polls at the Iowa caucus showed that more than 80 percent of young voters chose Sanders, and a recent USA Today poll showed him leading with female voters age 18-34 by 19 percent. When things are going the wrong way, why not pull out all the stops in a last-ditch attempt to reverse the momentum?
Since that post was written, something very interesting has been happening in New Hampshire, where the campaigns have turned their attention in advance of Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary. The overt charges of sexism, once confined to the Internet, have slipped out into the “real world,” where Clinton’s surrogates have begun wielding the gender issue like a political mace. Since Friday, the seemingly coordinated strategy has yielded three headline incidents.
1. Gloria Steinem
Friday, appearing on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, feminist icon Gloria Steinem was asked about Sanders’ advantage among the young female demographic.
“Younger women…they’re more for Bernie,” Maher said.
“It depends where you ask,” Steinem said.
“America,” Maher retorted, drawing laughs. It was Steinem’s next statement that resonated well beyond the HBO studio:
I don’t mean to over-generalize … but men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age, and women get more radical because they lose power as they age. So it’s kind of not fair to measure most women by the standard of most men, because they’re going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.”
“Now if I said that…you’d swat me, come on!” said a surprised Maher.
The outcry was instantaneous, and by Sunday, Steinem was forced to issue an apology on her Facebook page. Her words, and the top comment that followed, tell a better story than any news article could:
Steinem may have been speaking off-hand, but the sense of betrayal young feminists felt was all too real. Steinem, 81, seems to have realized the effect of her words, and it’s a fair bet that her regret is real—after all, nobody wants a NYT headline accusing them of scolding young women. Steinem is also the least involved in the campaign of the three, though she has endorsed Clinton.
2. Madeleine Albright
While it may have been puzzling to watch someone like Steinem take such a seemingly regressive position, it could have almost been expected from Albright, the Secretary of State during Bill Clinton’s second term. Not only does she have a long history with the Clintons, but her politics are more hawkish (to put it mildly), and she’s far closer to Clinton in an ideological sense. Speaking at a rally in New Hampshire, Albright let loose with a gender-based volley as Clinton nodded along:
“We can tell our story about how we climbed the ladder,” she said, “and a lot of you young women don’t think you have to…it’s been done. It’s not done, and you have to help. Hillary clinton will always be there for you. And just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Yikes! The heavy implication that women supporting Sanders were A) ignorant of the struggle, and B) actually going to hell, did not sit well with young women. Many of her critics chose to reference the 60 Minutes interview linked above, where Albright didn’t blink as she explained how sanctions resulting in the death of half a million Iraqi children were justified:
“Well good grief, we’re getting offended by everything these days,” Clinton said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Honest to goodness, I mean, people can’t say anything without offending somebody. She has a life experience that I respect. I admire her greatly. And I think what she was trying to do — what she’s done in every setting I’ve ever seen her in going back 20 plus years — was to remind young women, particularly, that you know, this struggle, which many of us have been part of, is not over, and don’t be in any way lulled by the progress we’ve made.”
So that’s what passes for “light-hearted” these days. Still, Albright had nothing on our final evangelist…
3. Bill Clinton
Speaking at a junior high school in Milford, NH, the former president shook off the restraints with which the campaign had shackled him, and went on the attack. From the New York Times:
But Mr. Clinton’s most pointed remarks may have been when he took aim at Sanders supporters who, he said, use misogynistic language in attacking Mrs. Clinton. He told the story of a female “progressive” blogger who defended Mrs. Clinton online through a pseudonym because, he said, the vitriol from Mr. Sanders’s backers was so unrelenting.
“She and other people who have gone online to defend Hillary, to explain why they supported her, have been subject to vicious trolling and attacks that are literally too profane often, not to mention sexist, to repeat.” Mr. Clinton, growing more demonstrative, added that the liberal journalist Joan Walsh had faced what he called “unbelievable personal attacks” for writing positively about Mrs. Clinton.
There’s a rich irony in Bill Clinton crying sexism, seeing as how “Bill Clinton sexual misconduct allegations” has its own Wikipedia page. Beyond being a serial adulterer, this is a man who has been accused of rape and sexual assault by multiple women. And according to the NYT, Hillary did not stand on the sidelines, which is part of the reason she’s having trouble winning the support of young women:
“We have to destroy her story,” Mrs. Clinton said in 1991 of Connie Hamzy, one of the first women to come forward during her husband’s first presidential campaign, according to George Stephanopoulos, a former Clinton administration aide who described the events in his memoir, “All Too Human.” (Three people signed sworn affidavits saying Ms. Hamzy’s story was false.)
When Gennifer Flowers later surfaced, saying that she had had a long affair with Mr. Clinton, Mrs. Clinton undertook an “aggressive, explicit direction of the campaign to discredit” Ms. Flowers, according to an exhaustive biography of Mrs. Clinton, “A Woman in Charge,” by Carl Bernstein.
Mrs. Clinton referred to Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern who had an affair with the 42nd president, as a “narcissistic loony toon,” according to one of her closest confidantes, Diane D. Blair, whose diaries were released to the University of Arkansas after her death in 2000.
Ms. Lewinsky later called the comment an example of Mrs. Clinton’s impulse to “blame the woman.”
This development shouldn’t come as a surprise—former president Clinton was willing to play the race card in 2008 against Obama, so why wouldn’t he play the gender card now?—but it does vault the nomination contest into its ugliest stages yet.
The timing couldn’t be more appropriate—the Clinton campaign knows that if it can mount a comeback in New Hampshire and score a stunning win on the heels of the narrow victory in Iowa, Sanders’ uphill battle will become almost impossible. If he wins, there’s no telling how fast things could turn. A look at the most recent national polls, where Sanders has come within double digits for the first time, paints a picture of Clinton poised on a knife’s edge, very vulnerable to the quick shift that saw Barack Obama shock the party in 2008. This is a case of pull-out-all-the-stops politics, and high stakes have a way of revealing the worst aspects of a campaign’s character.