Women in politics: Don’t expect a female president just yet

Thomas Bink
David vs. David
Women in politics: Don’t expect a female president just yet

Timing is everything — in lovemaking, comedy, and politics.

But with over three years before the next U.S. presidential election, rumination regarding who will run for the presidency from either party — let alone who will win — is simply speculation.

That said, some conditioning factors impinge:

  • There is implicit rotation in U.S. presidential politics. Just as it is difficult to defeat an incumbent president seeking a second term, it is even more difficult for a party to win a third consecutive term. In recent political history only George H.W. Bush won Ronald Reagan’s third term, while Richard Nixon, Al Gore, and John McCain failed to win their predecessor’s "third term." Consequently, it will be difficult for Democrats to win a third consecutive presidential election following two terms of controversial Barack Obama.
  • After two terms of George W. Bush, 2008 was the Democrats’ year. Whoever Democrats selected was the odds-on favorite to become president: either Senator Hillary Clinton (first woman) or Senator Barak Obama (first African-American). Interestingly, Clinton was the early/persistent favorite given her high public recognition, professional staff support, and excellent fundraising war chest. Nevertheless, she lost the Democratic nomination not because she was a woman but because Obam a —with even greater ostensible liabilities — was a more effective campaigner.

Thus, if circumstances had broken slightly differently, the United States would be struggling under “President Clinton” with question marks regarding the electability of a woman as president resolved but the proximate issue being “never again?” for a female president.

So for 2016 the question is less whether the United States is ready for a female president than which woman could run successfully for president. And here the issue is less than obvious. Clinton doubtlessly still has the greatest name recognition of any Democrat not named Obama, but she also has the liabilities of age (at 69 she would be the second oldest person elected president, a few months younger than Ronald Reagan); political damage inflicted during her losing 2008 election campaign; concerns about the Benghazi scandal; and the lingering distaste for putting Bill back in the White House. There is a sense that her future was yesteryear.

Other senior Democrat women: House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and California senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein would be even older in 2016 (respectively 76, 76, and 83), and regarded as either unlovable or lacking national profiles. There are 14 other Democrat female senators and one female governor, none with a national political profile.

Republican women do not fare significantly better. Representative Michele Bachmann contended briefly in the Republican 2012 primaries as a vigorous proponent of conservative-Tea Party principles, but by announcing she would not run for re-election in 2014, she has sidelined herself from politics.

More interesting is former Alaska governor Sarah Palin who, as Senator McCain’s choice for vice president in 2008, demonstrated that Republicans were willing to put a woman “one heartbeat away from the presidency.” Coming out of nowhere, Palin was a high risk/high gain choice with equal galvanizing and polarizing consequences for the Republicans. With McCain’s defeat, Palin had two choices: return to Alaska, subdue the local Republican hierarchy (many of whom opposed her as governor), and absorb the complex briefs of foreign affairs, economics, race relations, etc. that would permit her to demonstrate substantive mastery and avoid previous infelicities. Or she could leave politics and become a sociopolitical figure on the talk show/commentator circuit. By choosing the latter, Palin — perhaps inadvertently — marginalized herself into a political cheerleader rather than a prospective national candidate.

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Otherwise, the Republicans have four female senators and four female governors (all from the South/Southwest) who also lack national profiles and look more akin to prospective running mates for a male presidential nominee or cabinet selections for a victorious Republican.

Moreover, the Republicans have a clutch of high-powered males salivating at the chance to run for president: former Florida governor Jeb Bush; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; Florida Senator Marco Rubio; Texas Senator Ted Cruz; Kentucky Senator Rand Paul; Ohio Senator Rob Portman; and failed VP nominee Paul Ryan. Likewise, ambitious Democrats are hardly cowed by Clinton; in their view she is a loser. Despite her current polling lead, Vice President Joe Biden and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are likely competitors.

So while we are “ready, aye ready” for a woman as president, 2016 may still be the year of the male.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.