It was inevitable that Bernie Sanders would be accused of sexism sooner or later.
His day came over the weekend. At the signature Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, Hillary Clinton hit the Vermont senator for saying in the first Democratic debate that “all the shouting in the world” wouldn’t keep guns out of the wrong hands. According to Clinton, Sanders had directed a notoriously sexist insult at her — although not one of the 15 million people watching at the time had noticed it.
“I haven’t been shouting,” Clinton intoned, “but sometimes when a woman speaks out, some people think it’s shouting.” What Clinton’s plaint lacked in plausibility, it made up for in bad faith.
Shouting has not typically been considered a loaded term. Sanders didn’t say “screeching.” He didn’t say “nagging.” In fact, he had been saying that shouting is ineffectual in the gun debate long before he was entangled in an argument about gun control with Hillary Clinton.
Nonetheless, Sanders felt compelled on the CNN show “State of the Union” on Sunday to tout his record on women’s issues and say, “I think what the secretary is doing there is taking words and misapplying them.” But there he goes again — suggesting that women aren’t capable of correctly applying words.
Sanders should get used to it. If he remains a threat to Clinton in the early states, he’ll be deemed a cross between Archie Bunker and Andrew Dice Clay before it’s over. Already, the left-wing publication Salon ran a headline urging on the sisterhood: “Let’s storm the Sanders’ he-man women-haters club.” The 74-year-old admirer of all things Scandinavian hasn’t heretofore been known for his testosterone-laden aggression, although his hand-waving can occasionally get out of control.
If Hillary is perfectly willing to use this tack against Sanders, a down-the-line supporter of the feminist policy agenda who has spent his adult life soaking in left-wing pieties, just wait until she gets into a race with Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or any other Republican. No microaggression will be too “micro” to try to use to win a news cycle. Hillary will pretend to have the exquisite sensibilities of a campus feminist insisting she needs a “safe space” from the bristling hostility all around her.
Hillary has already broadcast that she’s going to wield her gender as an all-purpose argument for her candidacy. At the Democratic debate, she said she’s an outsider — because she’s a woman. She said she wouldn’t simply be the third term of Barack Obama — because she’s a woman. Hillary clearly doesn’t want anyone to be mistaken about what her gender is, as if we were living in 16th-century England when someone on the street exclaimed upon seeing Elizabeth I for the first time, “Oh Lord, the queen is a woman!”
There’s no doubt that there is appeal in “making history” with the first woman president. But Hillary also will need to do all she can to motivate women voters to make up for what may well be a historic poor showing among men. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, her favorable rating among white men was an abysmal 26 percent.
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway says that there are three positive attributes that voters tend to attribute to women candidates in general: They are warm and understanding; they are new and fresh; they are honest. Hillary, a partisan warrior who’s been on the national stage for decades, usually trailed by an ethical cloud, is an imperfect vessel for all of those qualities. Which is why she’ll use her gender as a means of attack as much as a selling point.
In Iowa over the weekend, she defended playing the “gender card,” saying if that’s what it’s called when you stand up for women’s rights, then “deal me in.” Actually, she’ll be doing the dealing, and it will be from the bottom of the deck.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.