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The Quiet Gender Revolution

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Posted on Jul 14, 2013
Wikimedia Commons / Harald Dettenborn (CC-BY)

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

WASHINGTON—American politics has gone through a gender revolution that has barely been noticed.

Take the discussions of the 2016 presidential election which, as a matter of habit, we have begun even before the end of the first year of the current president’s second term.

What’s obvious to everyone is that Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming Democratic favorite, if she decides to get in. Just last week, a Public Policy Poll in Iowa found Clinton supported by 71 percent, with 12 percent going to Vice President Joe Biden, and the other alternatives trailing badly. Recall that it was her loss in Iowa to Barack Obama that ended her front-runner status in 2008 and set Obama on his path to victory.

The difference between then and 2016 is that there is a yearning across the range of Democratic opinion for Clinton’s candidacy. The last time, she had to persuade the party. This time, the party wants to persuade her.

Clinton’s gender is certainly relevant to the desire of so many who want her nominated. She would, indeed, appeal to women of diverse political views who want to break the presidential glass ceiling. But support for Clinton has at least as much to do with hard-core calculations that she could win because of her wide experience, her likely reach to working-class voters, and her sheer endurance in the face of tests that few other politicians have had to confront.

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It gets even more interesting when you think about what could happen if Clinton doesn’t run—and, even more, whom the party might turn to after the Hillary Clinton era it is hoping for ends.

In that PPP poll, for example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts places third, at 5 percent, behind Clinton and Biden. With Clinton out of the race, Warren rose to 16 percent, against Biden’s 51 percent.

And here’s something even more noteworthy: If Biden and Clinton are both removed from the list, Warren leads the field with 20 percent followed by 18 percent for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, 12 percent for Newark Mayor and New Jersey senatorial candidate Cory Booker, and 7 percent for New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Of course a survey at this time shouldn’t be taken as predictive (and there’s also all the margin of error stuff). What’s unprecedented in our political history is (1) that there are two possible female front-runners, Clinton and Warren, and (2) that the inclusion of both Warren and Gillibrand as contenders makes simple, cold political sense. It doesn’t matter how you feel about gender equality. All three women have to be rated as strong potential candidates.

That’s how they got onto Public Policy Polling’s list in the first place. “We’re really just trying to put in the most high-profile, plausible Democrats we can think of,” said director Tom Jensen. His organization canvasses online and through Twitter for advice on which candidates to include.

Jensen pointed to the “Madam President” campaign being organized by EMILY’s List, which raises money to elect Democratic women and has been insisting that pollsters (and pundits) recognize how presidential gender politics has changed. “It’s not like I’m making this stuff up,” said Stephanie Schriock, the organization’s president, who noted there are now 16 Democratic and four Republican women in the Senate.

Schriock can offer a lengthy list of women who need to be considered over the long haul, including New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (the only woman in American history to have served as both a U.S. senator and a governor), along with Sens. Warren, Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

She also mentions Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, retiring Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano—both former governors—and Christine Gregoire, who served as Washington state chief executive.

It should be said that the same gender story cannot yet be told of the Republican Party. Still, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are two of the most prominent voices for the political right, and Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Nikki Haley of South Carolina could play larger national roles.

On the day she withdrew from the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton declared that from then forward, “it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States.” This much has already happened.


E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
   
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group


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