Clinton running as a woman, but in subtle ways
Washington — During an elegant awards luncheon in Washington, Hillary Rodham Clinton heralded the importance of women around the world having a say at the highest levels of power.
Yet she made no mention of the landmark achievement she would score for women if she becomes the first female president of the United States.
The omission was purposeful as she navigates a White House campaign that both embraces, in subtle ways, her historic candidacy and emphasizes, in explicit ways, the voters instead of herself. In her first two weeks as a candidate for the Democratic nomination, she’s let her choice of events and campaign themes do the talking on the subject of a woman attaining the presidency.
In trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, that’s meant casting herself as a “champion” for American families and focusing on issues that traditionally resonate with women, like paid family leave, education and childcare. Her campaign reasons that such issues are relevant to men with families, too.
Clinton’s first events as a candidate have been small discussions with voters aimed in part at showing her softer side. She’s peppered her remarks with references to her late mother, her daughter and her infant granddaughter.
And she’s been talking directly this week, as she’s done often over the years, about rights and opportunities for women. She did so Wednesday when Georgetown University honored recipients of a prize that carries her name, the Hillary Rodham Clinton Award for Advancing Women in Peace and Security. She was also to address the Women in the World conference in New York, bringing together female political leaders, activists and celebrities, Thursday night.
“Ask women to join you at the table,” Clinton said at Wednesday’s event. “Ask women to tell you what is on their minds.”
The closest anyone came to addressing Clinton’s White House bid was when award recipient Staffan de Mistura noted that just 20 countries have a woman as head of state or government.
“That should tell us something,” said de Mistura, a diplomat who worked with Clinton while she served as secretary of state.
When Clinton first ran for president in 2008, she played down the history-making potential of her candidacy, a decision her advisers now say was a mistake. She focused instead on her experience and grit.
That was, in part, an attempt to head off any voter concerns that a woman might not be tough enough to serve as president. It was also seen as a way to draw a contrast with Barack Obama, a freshman senator at the time.
Obama rarely talked about himself as the possible first black president during the 2008 campaign. But his supporters sometimes made that case and his team was adept at harnessing the enthusiasm of voters who were energized by his historic candidacy.
Some Clinton supporters say the former first lady may be able to do the same in the 2016 contest.
“For many voters, the chance to make history will be very important,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress.
Though women still trail men as political office-holders, women wield enormous power in national elections. They made up just over half of the electorate in the 2012 presidential election. About 55 percent of woman backed Obama.
While Clinton will need to hold together the coalition of young people, black and Hispanic voters that also helped Obama win the White House, some Democratic strategists say she could offset some losses there by picking up a few more percentage points among women in key swing states.
To some Republicans, Clinton’s projection of a softer, more family-friendly side is simply a political ploy and an attempt to avoid talking about her record as secretary of state. Among her fiercest critics has been Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who is the only Republican woman expected to run for president.
“She wants to make it a gender-based campaign,” Fiorina said in an interview.
Clinton’s advisers say she is simply talking about issues that are important to the middle class, and not ducking her record.
“Hillary is focused on talking with everyday Americans about the issues that impact their lives, and our nation’s future,” said Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for the campaign.