Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Royal Lesson for Hillary Clinton

This morning's Wall Street Journal has a compelling article on the gender dynamics of Segolene Royal's loss in Sunday's French presidential runoff. Royal won 48 percent of the women's vote, but observers suggest that she overstressed gender and was weak on policy issues. Here's the article's introduction:

Elections abroad featuring female candidates, including this week's contest in France, don't answer the question of how open Americans are to electing their first woman president. But they do offer this hint: Voters have become more receptive to females who project gender-bending strength and substance, as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton tries to do, and more likely to reject those who don't.

Socialist Ségolène Royal lost her bid to be France's first female president after a campaign in which she played up her motherhood and underplayed policy details, while conservative winner Nicolas Sarkozy emphasized a hard-line platform against crime and immigration. In contrast, Angela Merkel won election in 2005 as Germany's first female chancellor with a campaign so focused on the dry economics of tax rates and labor rules that female commentators complained. "She has not shown any enthusiasm for so-called women's politics," Germany's best-known feminist, Alice Schwarzer, sniped at the time.

Now, as Mrs. Clinton seeks the Democratic nomination, and the chance to make U.S. history, the dicey politics of gender are central to the New York senator's strategy. She uses her gender to advantage where she can. "This is going to be an election about change," and "one big one is Hillary's gender," says Ann Lewis, a top Clinton strategist. "The excitement she engenders among women is an important asset."
The article also stessed -- in the case of Hillary Clinton -- that the former first lady's campaign has parlayed gender when it's been useful, but her handlers have been very mindful that presidents are commanders-in-chief, which helps explain why Clinton has not renounced her 2002 Iraq vote in the Senate.

The Journal's piece offers an interesting hypothesis: The top women political executives in European democracies are elected because of their parliamentary systems, where they can work their way up as cabinet ministers, earning the respect of other legislators who may in time be reassured of their women colleague's leadership abilities:

As for gender, observers of political trends say women have had an easier time reaching the top in parliamentary systems of government, where heads of state are chosen by their colleagues in the ruling party, than in places -- like the U.S. -- that pick leaders through national elections. Parliamentary governments produced some of the best-known female heads of state of recent decades, including Mrs. Thatcher, Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, Indira Ghandi of India and Golda Meir of Israel.

That same dynamic -- in which a woman is chosen from among political colleagues who have seen their leadership potential first-hand -- helps explain why the U.S. has its first female House Speaker -- Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California -- before it has elected, or even nominated, a woman to be president.
The article touches on -- but doesn't provide conclusive data -- on the percentage of voters in the French election that specifically indicated they wouldn't vote for a woman. In Clinton's case on the American side, a recent Washington Post poll on the gender dynamics of the 2008 election found that 13 percent of respondents said that "they'd be less likely" to vote for a woman as president. However, interestingly, a recent Los Angeles Times poll found only 4 percent of respondents saying they would not vote for a woman for president.

I don't have numbers on the anti-female vote in the French election, but I did blog earlier on the deep parternalistic culture working against a Royal presidential victory: "
French Culture Resists Role for Women in Politics."

There were a couple of interesting weekend posts on the Sarkozy victory over at the blog Neo-Neocon (
check here, for example). Neo-Neocon trumpeted the women's vote for Sarkozy, but didn't examine the possibility of gender discrimination influencing the final tally. Obviously, Sego might have just blown the campaign. That said, French parternalism certainly might have played a considerable role in her defeat.

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