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My Hillary prediction

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | August 14, 2014

I am now in a position to make a prediction: Hillary Rodham Clinton will not be the Democratic candidate for president in 2016.

Remember: you read it here first.

Why do I think that? Because I have been following the rants of the commentariat on the topic for the last couple of years, and I see where things are going. Only a year or so ago, the consensus was that Clinton was “inevitable” and that this was good. Pretty nearly everyone across all media chimed in to say that it was wonderful that a woman finally had a chance to be president of the United States – and a highly competent and experienced woman at that. Then, of course, the commentariat got to sit back and reflect on how very open-minded and non-sexist they were. They applauded Hillary, and themselves even more.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Early this year, as we drew closer to a 2016 dénouement, the narrative began to shift. Clinton’s candidacy was still described as “inevitable,” but that inevitability was now understood in a negative way: bad in itself, bad for Clinton, bad for the Democrats. This is not an unreasonable position. A candidate needs sharp primary opposition to shape up for the general election. I agree, but note that the commentators are moving away from their original purely positive position.

They then moved still further, no longer speaking of “inevitability,” but wondering what would happen “if she falters.” They tended to say that last word very cheerfully, and with “if” sounding a lot like “when.”

Right now, Clinton’s candidacy is being assessed in a wholly different way – far from “wonderful,” that augury of a post-gendered world, it is now recast as a terrible idea, and Clinton as a terrible candidate. In recent writings she is “bellicose” and “barbed”; “hawkish”; “truculent”; “disloyal”; “everything is calculation and calibration,” all from an op-ed by Frank Bruni.

Maureen Dowd has also weighed in: as usual, Clinton is nothing but preternatural evil. Dowd segues from the death of Robin Williams to her conversation with Williams in which she told him about her friend Michael Kelly to the fact that Kelly was the first reporter killed in Iraq to a strong implicature that Clinton was to blame for Kelly’s death because she had voted for the war – as if her vote alone caused the war to happen, and as if she – or anyone else – could have foreseen how disastrous that war would turn out to be. And as if she could have done otherwise, given who she was and the position she aspired to.

Bruni’s and Dowd’s criticisms are not without merit; it is seldom that we get to vote for a candidate in a presidential election who is pure as the driven snow and aligns perfectly with us. But intelligent voters know how to make appropriate compromises: you decide what qualities in a candidate are the most crucial for you, and you find the best match. You finesse the others as best you can.

For me, having a woman in the Oval Office is #1. I am willing to put up with a fair amount of other, less desirable stuff to make that happen. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I would vote for a Palin or a Bachmann, or even Joni Ernst, the Iowa hog-castratrix, were any of them in the running: in their cases, the negatives outweigh the positive too significantly. But for this voter, such is not the case with Clinton.

I have said in these pieces that I am a reliable dove; I believe peace is always the default, especially in a time where our resources are strained and better used otherwise, and in a region where we are despised and which we cannot understand. (On the other hand, I am becoming increasingly nervous watching the growth of power and influence of several really bad actors: Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and now ISIS. Perhaps something really needs to be done before it gets even worse, and in that case, we are the ones who will have to do most of it.) I was not happy with Clinton’s Senate war vote, nor am I totally behind her current “hawkishness.” But I understand why she has done what she has done.

Note, first of all, that when discussing a war/peace decision, there is no good way to speak of a woman who may be the decider: to call a woman “bellicose” and “hawkish” is to depict her as a scary harpy (as is not so with a man); to call her “dovish” is to suggest that she is weak and ineffectual (more than would be so with a man). Here, as so often, we have no positive or even neutral vocabulary to speak of a woman who aspires to power. She is bad, she is dangerous, she is no woman but not a man, either.

Clinton had to vote for war in 2002 because she was a prominent senator from a major state, and was contemplating a run for the presidency. Obama delivered his famous antiwar speech as a new and unknown state senator from the much less major state of Illinois. It is the proverbial apples vs. oranges, and the comparison has always been unfair – the more so as we see Obama’s actions as president. She had to vote for the war also because she was a woman and didn’t want to be cast as an ineffectual dove. To have any hope of becoming president, a woman must act against gender stereotypes, but if she does she will be harshly condemned for doing so, the same old double bind of damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

To take another example to the same point, consider Bruni’s opening paragraphs:

The other night, a prominent Democrat I know made the craziest statement.

“I don’t think Hillary’s going to run,” he proclaimed, silencing the room. He might as well have said that he’d just spotted Bigfoot pilfering rhubarb from the White House vegetable garden or that Arnold Schwarzenegger was in line to play Lear on Broadway. (“Cordelia, I’ll be baaaaack.”) He was humming some kind of loony tune.

His evidence?

“She seems tired,” he said.

Just what is going on here? Can you imagine the “prominent Democrat” saying something similar about Biden? Or Martin O’Malley?

What’s wrong with the statement? Everything.

The p.D. is doing what men have always done when talking about a woman: interpreting her without evidence, becoming the boss of what she thinks and is. And yet, although Bruni (ironically) calls it “the craziest statement,” it doesn’t seem particularly out of line. But no woman can become president until it does.

First of all, how does he know whether she “seems tired”? This is the kind of remark that parents typically address to children who are getting out of hand: “You seem tired. You need a nap.”

Now, it is often legitimate for parents to make such interpretations to small children, and arguably doing so helps kids understand how they feel, how to talk about it and what to do about it. But when a man makes interpretations of a mature woman whom he probably hardly even knows personally, the game is less innocent: he is casting himself as the wise and superior adult to the woman’s perpetual child; as the person with the power to tell her who and what and how she is, when she cannot normally do the same to him. Unilateral interpretation of this sort has been used by men against women since time immemorial and is always destructive of a woman’s identity and self-possession.

And this is a Democrat? With friends like this….

And suppose that in fact she really is “tired”? Plenty of tired people have run and served as president. To make the assumption that there is a necessary linkage between seeming tired, being tired, and dropping out of contention takes both nerve and desperation.

Men, and male-identified women like Dowd, have recently come up against the very scary possibility that it could happen here. A woman could be elected to the presidency, sit in that chair in the Oval Office, and have more prestige, if not literal power, than any man on earth. Until the last month or two, they hadn’t felt that queasiness in the stomach, the sweaty palms and trembling hands that spell TERROR. Now that Election Day, 2016, is just over the horizon, the commentariat is getting really, really scared. What was inevitable must be reconstrued as evitable, and we must evit it. So the vocabulary is changing to one that makes it extremely hard for a woman to be taken seriously and harder for her to win, and the narrative is shifting to one that paints her as bellicose and irresponsible.

For those who are afraid, very afraid, of a female Clinton in the White House, the unflagging attention paid to the un-candidate offers an extra added benefit. In presidential primary campaigns, one big thing voters are looking for is freshness. They want someone they don’t know everything about, someone whose novelty creates excitement. A female candidate, like an African-American one, ought to be able to do that particularly well and carry that advantage into the general election (as happened in 2008).

But Clinton’s premature ubiquity is working against that. In each of the last three days, the New York Times has run a combination of at least three front-page articles and op-eds in which she is the major topic. We are getting dangerously close to Clinton fatigue, and the election is still a couple of years away. It would be paranoid (wouldn’t it?) to suggest that Clinton’s omnipresence is part of a deliberate plot to render her unelectable, but it certainly gives aid and comfort to her enemies.

The boys and traditional gals are circling the wagons. This fight is one they must win, and win they will. Yee-haw.