Give Yahoo News columnist Matt Bai credit for sticking his neck out to write his analysis of Hillary Clinton’s claim that endemic misogyny sunk her presidential bid in 2016. Bai knows he’ll get slammed; at one point, he even half-writes the inevitable attacks coming his way. “I’ll never have the personal experience with sexism that Clinton or other women in politics do,” Bai writes before turning fully into the headwinds, and later also allows that Hillary is “entitled to take away her own lessons from the 2016 election.” He bookends the entire effort with a conversation with his young daughter, who was “devastated” by the election’s outcome.
Nevertheless, Bai argues that while sexism may be present, it ranked at the bottom of the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. In fact, Bai extends that argument to conclude that Hillary’s gender helped her as much as it held her back:
When Jesse Jackson ran in 1984 and again in 1988, he was widely viewed as the black candidate for president, and his failure was a foregone conclusion. But the door Jackson kicked ajar swung open wider for Obama 20 years later, when race was still an issue, regrettably, but no longer a defining one.
The same is true, I think, for being a woman. The congresswomen Shirley Chisholm and Pat Schroeder were considered almost novelties when they ran for president (and, as Clinton notes, Schroeder was treated as a joke when she displayed the temerity to cry publicly). But Clinton entered the 2016 primaries as the establishment candidate and the overwhelming favorite, not just the female one.
Gender, while always an added challenge, never defined Clinton’s candidacy. And on the list of challenges that made Clinton a less than ideal candidate — her age, her perceived entitlement, her family history of scandal, her limited skill as a persuader — the fact that she was a woman probably hovered somewhere near the bottom.
In fact, you could make a reasonable case that, just as race actually helped Obama by giving white voters a chance to feel they were turning the page on an ugly historical chapter, gender probably benefited Clinton to some degree, too.
Bai misses one point here, which is the crucial issue in this claim. Hillary Clinton made every effort to have gender define her candidacy in a manner that Barack Obama avoided with race in 2008 and 2012. She talked incessantly about glass ceilings and how it was time to have a woman in charge, making explicit appeals on gender. However, Hillary also mostly cast it in personal terms — it was her turn, not the turn of all women. Her election would satisfy whatever injuries Hillary had suffered, not those of all women.
It turned out that the hard sell on identity politics and personal entitlement didn’t work out too well, but that has a lot less to do with endemic misogyny than it does with the competence of the candidate. Bai points out that Trump won by 12 points among men while losing by 13 among women. That’s very similar to 2012’s split, where Barack Obama lost men by seven while winning women by 11 points. The problem was that Hillary barely improved on Democratic performance among women. Even the ethnic demographics were not dissimilar. The difference was turnout, especially in Blue Wall states that Hillary had largely ignored. There was no dramatic shift, or even much of a shift at all, due to gender — which makes the misogyny argument difficult to sell.
So what is the lesson from 2016 on gender? Bai says it’s a factor, but given Hillary’s ability to win a major-party nomination and then the popular vote in the general election, gender “isn’t a deal breaker anymore, or even a notable disadvantage. It’s just something else to factor in.”
Matt’s correct. In the end, it’s the talent and performance of the candidate that matters. That won’t help him avoid all of the attacks sure to come his way about “mansplaining” and “male privilege,” but it might remind him just how meaningless they are in the end.