TOPICS > Politics

Clinton’s Run Triggers Debate Over Gender Bias

May 22, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Sen. Hillary Clinton spoke frankly this week about the sexism she feels she has faced on the campaign trail as she competes with Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. Two columnists weigh the role of gender in politics and how the media has handled the issue.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, the politics of gender, where to draw the line, and has it already been crossed? Judy Woodruff has that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the presidential primaries near an end, the debate has picked up over whether Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has been adversely affected by her gender.

Have the charges raised of sexism or sexist remarks been true? And if so, how much have they hurt Clinton?

We get different views on the question now from syndicated columnist Marie Cocco and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus.

Thank you both for being here.

Marie, I’m going to start with you. You’ve been writing that there has been sexism in this campaign. How so?

MARIE COCCO, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I wrote my first column about this last October when Clinton was the prohibitive front-runner, when not a single vote had been cast, no caucuses and primaries had been held.

And by last October, we had already had John Edwards and Barack Obama discuss her jacket at a debate. There had already been a national discussion about her cleavage. There had already been a long-running cable TV discussion about whether her laugh was really a cackle.

And then, by November, we had a situation where a woman got up at a John McCain event and said, “How do we beat the” — rhymes with witch. And John McCain chuckled, and didn’t rebuke her in any way, and ultimately said, “That’s an excellent question.”

So this has been an atmosphere that started very early. It did not start once Clinton started losing primaries; it started before any votes were cast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruth, have you seen it this that way?

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: I’ve seen everything that Marie talks about, and I think those are certainly episodes in the campaign, and episodes that I think any person would find disturbing to different degrees. And I found them disturbing.

I’m not sure, though, that that’s — whether that’s the forest or the trees. I’ve actually been struck throughout the course of the campaign — yes, I think we can all agree there have been really unfortunate comments, comments that were not taken as seriously as racist comments would have been taken.

But the tone — but, overall, the campaign has been relatively devoid of that kind of ugliness. And I think, overall, it’s been, as Speaker Pelosi said to you last night, a lot of groundbreaking for women that’s going to be built on.

Allegations of sexism

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is this just the matter of the eye of the beholder, Marie?

MARIE COCCO: I disagree. I think that the cable media in particular and certain cable outlets in particular have had a jocular, locker-room cant going on about Senator Clinton for months.

And I can tell you that, in response to a column I wrote just last week, I received more than 8,000 e-mails from all over the world, from India, from Indonesia, from Canada, from Europe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From women?

MARIE COCCO: Almost all from women, some from men. And the male was running about 10-1 or 12-1 agreeing with this partial catalog of truly vitriolic and hateful, often vulgar stuff that has been said about Senator Clinton. Now, I am not arguing that this is why she's losing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's what I want to ask you. Are you saying that it's affected the campaign?

MARIE COCCO: What I'm saying is that this has been the cultural atmosphere, that no one has called out the media on this. And I don't think it's -- if I were to do an analysis of why she's losing, I would look a lot more at the mechanics of her campaign. However, I think this has been a boulder on her back.

RUTH MARCUS: But I guess I would look at it as, are women candidates today better off than they were seven or eight months ago? I would actually argue -- though I don't disagree with what Marie has said about the tenor of some of the conversation, that they're better off.

Senator Clinton has shown you can be tough. You can also show emotion. There's no question about whether she knows the substance. If you remember way back when, Donald Regan, President Reagan's chief of staff, talked about how women weren't interested in throw weights.

Well, nobody could suggest that -- Hillary Clinton has out-wonked every other candidate on the campaign trail. I think this has all been to the good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marie, how can it be that it's -- you're saying it's out there at a serious level...

MARIE COCCO: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... but you're saying it hasn't determined the outcome or the course of the campaign so far?

MARIE COCCO: I think, look, when you're running a losing campaign, you can find a thousand reasons why that campaign is losing, just like when you're running a winning campaign, you can find a thousand reasons why that candidate is completely brilliant, OK?

I think this has been an atmosphere of contempt and disrespect. Now, for example, what would have happened if...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me just come back to Ruth's remark that it's better than it was or better than it could have been.

MARIE COCCO: Oh, no, I think if you look back at, for example, Geraldine Ferraro, the only woman who's ever run on a national ticket, there were a couple of episodes in 1984 where there were clearly sexist remarks made. But this constant drumbeat of contempt and vitriol and actual vulgarity I don't think really went on 24 years ago.

Sensitive issues at play

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the two of you very smart women having very different perspectives.

RUTH MARCUS: Well, there's an overlap in our perspectives. And I think that Marie has tapped into something real that is serious, that many women and some men have felt in the campaign, that I think it really behooves Senator Obama to be very attentive to as the campaign unfolds and as Senator Clinton eventually, I think, will concede the nomination to him, because there is a lot of anger out there and he needs to be very careful about treating her in a way that her supporters will feel is respectful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you saying there's something he needs to say or do or is this a tone?

RUTH MARCUS: I don't think it's he has to make her the vice president or pick a woman vice presidential nominee, but I think it's very tonal. And people have taken offense sometimes in this campaign where, I think, none was intended.

For example, that was controversy over pulling out Senator Clinton's chair at one of the debates. All of those little things at this moment, when people's emotions are very raw and exposed, really can make a difference. And I think it's a dangerous time for Senator Obama, in that sense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marie, what about -- and Senator Clinton herself was asked about this, this week, and she said she didn't think there had been overt racism in this campaign, but she did suggest she thinks there's been a level of sexism. Talk about the difference, about what's acceptable and what isn't?

MARIE COCCO: Well, again, if you look at some of the commentary from truly multimillion-dollar media personalities on national broadcasts with a national microphone who have said just contemptible sexist things, it's my belief that if they had said the kind of contemptible things with a racial element about Senator Obama, somebody would have called them out on it.

Somebody would have. Maybe Howard Dean would have. Maybe Senator Obama's surrogates and campaign officials would have gone on and demanded time to say...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying no one did that?

MARIE COCCO: No one. To my knowledge, the only comment that's been rebuked, so to speak, was the comment on MSNBC that Chelsea -- it seemed as though Chelsea Clinton was being "pimped out." To my knowledge, that's the only one. And, of course, we can catalog them going back months and months.

Impact on gender issues unclear

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, and, Ruth, yesterday in my talk with Speaker Pelosi she said she also doesn't believe it's a setback for women in politics if Senator Clinton doesn't win the nomination.

RUTH MARCUS: I think actually it's an important steppingstone for women. I'm depressed in the sense that there's not a next obvious candidate to come along, but I'm energized and enthusiastic, because I would like to see a woman president in my lifetime, at the notion that I think this campaign will -- and I disagree with Marie here -- make it easier for the next woman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marie, effect on the next possibility?

MARIE COCCO: I see no one on the horizon that would bring the political portfolio to a campaign that Hillary Clinton did, in terms of national name recognition, fundraising capability, her base of support within the party, and so forth. So I don't see any candidate on the horizon.

And I have to wonder if some of these women governors whose names we see tossed around really want to put themselves through the kind of wringer that's been out there this year. I don't know. Maybe they do. If they do, great. If not, I think we're going to be waiting a very long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I have a feeling we are going to be coming back to this. Marie Cocco, Ruth Marcus, thank you both.

RUTH MARCUS: Thank you.

MARIE COCCO: Thanks.