Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

13 June 2007

Just Like a Man

Feminists are fond of saying that women get dinged for traits often found attractive in men. When a male leader is “resolute,” a female is “stubborn.” When a man is “striving,” a woman is “self-seeking.” When the male is “tough,” the female is “abrasive” or even “a bitch.”

There is more than a germ of truth in these observations. But the feminists soon may have their revenge. It is now possible to imagine a President Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Why? There is a persistent and apparently growing gender gap. Senator Clinton now leads Senator Obama, her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, by more than a two-to-one margin among likely voters who are women.

There are two possible explanations for this fact. First, voters generally—including women—may perceive Clinton as most likely to end the war in Iraq quickly and decisively.

She certainly gave that impression in the last debate. In the closing moments, the moderator asked each candidate what he or she would do in the first hundred days as president. Senator Clinton began with a single, short declarative sentence: she would end the war in Iraq. She made her promise within minutes of the closing bell, when everyone watching would be sure to remember.

Seldom in presidential debates have I seen such a decisive stroke. Clinton made the other candidates look waffling and inadequate, and she did it on the single most important issue in the public mind today. Her master stroke reminded me of the scene in the novel Shogun, where the samurai, having sliced off his opponent’s sword arm, decapitates him in a “clean kill.” Senator Clinton did that with a whole stage full of political rivals.

The second possible reason for Clinton’s persistent lead in the polls is more sinister: reverse gender bias. It may be that women in this country are sufficiently hungry for female leadership to vote for Clinton despite her flaws.

Think about that. When politicians speak of ethnic or interest groups, they are usually talking about groups like African-Americans or Hispanics—each less than fifteen percent of the national population. Even such amorphous groups as evangelical Christians are only thirty percent or so. In contrast, women are a majority of both registered and likely voters. Command the allegiance of an “interest group” that large, and you have a decisive electoral advantage.

In this there is great irony. Women who vote for Senator Clinton may end up electing a woman who is just like a man.

In some important ways, Clinton is even reminiscent of our chief alpha male, George W. Bush. Like Bush, and like many men, she has trouble acknowledging mistakes. She has refused to apologize for her vote to authorize the war, saying she would vote the same way now having the same information she had then. Not even now that we know she didn’t read the crucial intelligence report will she admit error. She says that she, like any good pol, knew all she needed to know from the Washington grapevine. No late-night poring over pesky facts for her.

The same approach got Bush into such deep trouble. Didn’t his lack of intellectual curiosity, plus his reliance on “underlings” like Cheney and Rumsfeld, give us the mess in Iraq today? Will our next President Clinton, who didn’t personally read the most important report on the most important vote she would ever take as the junior senator from New York, do much better as president?

Senator Clinton is just like a man in another not-so-admirable respect. In voting to authorize war without studying the facts first, she valued her career and own climb to power over the nation’s welfare. That’s certainly a male thing to do; it describes George W. Bush’s six years as president precisely.

The final respect in which Senator Clinton is “just like a man” may ultimately be the most important. She is the most emotionally controlled politician I have seen on the national stage in decades. So far as I know, she has never displayed a hint of emotion in her public persona—not anger, not disgust, and certainly nothing so “female” as tears.

Yet maybe we need a leader who can cry, or at least who can grieve with us. Some time ago, novelist E. L. Doctorow wrote a compelling essay about George W. Bush’s “moral vacancy”—his inability to grieve. Do we want another leader who shows no public sadness at all those coffins coming home, now far more numerous than the victims of September 11 that were the pretext for our adventure?

Senator Clinton’s most salient trait is her consistent, emotionless and uncannily accurate political calculation. That is a putatively “male” trait, and a boon to any political leader. But is it enough?

The next president will face enormous challenges. We must conclude the war in Iraq and contain the damage we have done there to ourselves and to the region. We must win the war in Afghanistan. New wars with Iran and North Korea threaten. The struggle against Islamic terrorism will continue for decades, and the risk of nuclear terrorism will increase exponentially as the years pass.

And that is just the beginning. The world cries out for leadership on global warming that only the United States can provide. Our abject dependence on foreign oil makes our entire economy vulnerable to terrorism in the oil fields, simple mis-estimation of reserves, increasing demand among developing nations, and “normal” supply shocks. Our ballooning national debt, skyrocketing balance-of-payments deficit, dependence on financing from Japan and China, and increasingly hollow manufacturing base could produce an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions at any time. Add to this the persistent risk of an avian flu pandemic or other international medical crisis and you have our greatest need for wise leadership since World War II.

Senator Clinton would make a perfectly good president in normal times. She is a better-than-average pol, a good “Senator Pothole” for New York. She has a superb instinct for following any lead that the American people have unambiguously revealed. The people, too, have good instincts, once they have had a few years to chew on an issue.

But these are not normal times. The crises we are likely to face after 2008 won’t give us time to form a national consensus that Clinton could use her unerring domestic political instincts to follow. They will require the kind of real, creative, flexible and independent leadership of which Senator Clinton appears incapable.

Don’t get me wrong. If Senator Clinton is the Democratic nominee, as a lifelong Democrat I will likely vote for her. She stands head and shoulders above the Bible thumping baboons that make up most of the Republican field. The only Republican candidate who might make me think twice is John McCain.

And yet, and yet. We could do better. If Senator Obama can improve his professorial and somewhat hangdog style in the last debate—if he can show us all the brilliance and real independence of thought that are his—we might have a leader whose mind and approach to problem-solving are adequate to our extraordinarily perilous times.

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