Women’s Policy Action Tank: Playing the woman’s card in the US presidential elections

Today’s post examines women in the policy process and how gender can influence their agency, by examining the case study of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on 1 June 2016.  

Scorecard of women and the policy process provided by Lesley Russell, adjunct associate professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney

Topic: US Federal election discourse

It seems inevitable now that the election for US president will pit Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be nominated by a major party, against Donald Trump, a man who has thus far succeeded by breaking all the rules. Invective, sleaze and falsehoods have always been part of American political campaigning, and even in 2016 women in politics incur more than their fair share of demeaning and sexist remarks, but it's about to become even nastier, more personal and more sexist than ever.

Clinton, a policy wonk, somewhat cautious, always controlled and arguably as well qualified to be president as any candidate who has ever run, must battle it out against Trump, a rash and brash policy outsider with a narcissistic persona who substitutes aggrandisement for policies and personal attacks for campaign debates. It will be a struggle for any opponent against someone as wily and unpredictable as Trump; Clinton is saddled with the added burden of being a woman.

Trump's recent contention that Clinton is playing the "woman's card" and would be a failed candidate if she were a man gives a preview of his election strategy. He will use her potential to be the first woman president and the first female commander-in-chief against her. Trump will try to make Clinton's gender the campaign issue, as much to deflect attention from his own foibles as to avoid substantive debate. Nothing will be off limits.

His attacks already encompass branding her as "Crooked Hillary", implying that her physical health and stamina are not up to the job, and invoking an enabling role for her in Bill Clinton's infidelities and the suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster. This is Trump's preferred battle ground. He used these psychological warfare tactics – demeaning nicknames, insinuations, jibes and outright lies – to defeat his opponents in the Republican primaries. Trump's indiscriminate nastiness makes it harder for Clinton and her allies to call him out as a sexist.

Of course, there are also areas where Clinton is vulnerable and Trump consistently references the security lapses that led to the Benghazi attack and her problems over the use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. These issues are fair game in politics.

Clinton has already survived many sordid accusations in her public life, but she will need to survive even more if she is to make it to the Oval Office. Trump knows that nothing unites Republicans more than the chance to beat up on the Clinton and Obama legacies and he will ensure that she is seen through the prism of her husband and his flaws. Clinton must counter the accusations and dirt that will fly, but can't afford to get into the gutter with Trump. She is not helped by the fact that Bernie Sanders is still engaged in his own campaign against her. To date, her most effective ally in taking on Trump on his own terms has been Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Meanwhile, Clinton faces a tough challenge just managing the ideological and policy differences, given Trump's unorthodox and constantly changing positions. He will campaign to the right of her on issues like immigration, gun rights, abortion and repealing Obamacare, but to the left of her on trade, infrastructure spending and the use of military force. He is endlessly dismissive of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy legacy. It remains to be seen how debates between the two candidates will play out, and this may depend on the willingness of the debate moderators to ask the difficult and meaningful questions rather than to play to Trump's hand. Whether she wins the election may be as much about her ability to handle all that Trump will dish out as her experience and policies.

Clinton deliberately played down her gender in the 2008 campaign; this time around she speaks more openly, but even so, as the first woman to make it this far in the quest to become president, there are few guidelines and precedents for her to follow. Like Julia Gillard and Angela Merkel, more attention has been paid to Clinton's dress and her hair than her intellect. While sociologists agree that clothing is a form of visual language, this apparently only applies to ties for men, but to every outfit, every day for women. It's hard to "look presidential" when there is no picture of what that would be for an American woman. The situation is complicated in a country like the US where mature-age women are rarely idolised and the ability to command the armed forces is linked to the wearing of military uniform. Husbands, especially ones with a significant history of their own, are an added distraction.

Carol  Moseley Braun, who was the first African-American woman elected to the US Senate and who was a candidate in the Democrat presidential primaries in 2004, summed it up this way: "Women have to acquire the authority that a man has simply because of his gender."

This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  womenspolicy@goodshep.org.au  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen