Recently, the media has said a lot about a possible showdown between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for President in 2008. Although neither has officially announced their candidacy, it is clear that both are seriously sizing up their chances. As the media has become aroused by the potential battle, pundits, bloggers, and prognosticators have stimulated debates over each potential candidate’s electability. Perhaps it is because Barack Obama is not white, or because Hillary Clinton has no penis, or because each has demonstrated incredibly fundraising abilities, but these two candidates in particular have attracted the attention of media in ways that other stated or potential candidates have not. Should either win the nomination, people wonder, could either beat a Republican in the general election? The emerging debate on Hillary Clinton warrants a closer look.
Hillary Clinton has been considered a frontrunner for some time. She leads the potential field in both name recognition and money. The conventional wisdom has been skeptical, however, of her chances in the general election. Is America ready for a female president? Is she too polarizing? Can she appeal to citizens of all fifty states? Recently, however, there has been a counter-movement of sorts that has questioned the conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton is unelectable. Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, has cited recent polls that show Hillary Clinton competing favorably against not only her Democratic rivals, but also against Republican pack leaders John McCain and Rudolph Guliani. It is argued that these positive poll numbers, along with her exploding bank account and moderate voting record in the Senate, make Clinton the most electable, or very electable at the very least.
However, in spite of these compelling arguments, the fact is that she suffers the most glaring electability questions. This is not because America is not ready for a woman president. It is because the media is not ready to cover one objectively. Or, she is not the right woman to effectively dodge or deflect its scrutiny. I can vividly imagine her portrayal.
On one hand, you have the ultra-conservative media. Smirconish, Beck, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, and Coulter have all had plenty of practice using rhetoric, personal attack, and bombast to polarize and mislead the American people or otherwise besmirch the reputations of candidates to whom they are opposed. Do you remember how effectively the war hero John Kerry was bashed as soft on terror? What will happen to Clinton? None of her more moderate and conservative senate votes will save her from the emblematic imagery of bra-burning parties at the abortion clinic. Even if the attacks become so heinous as to draw backlash, the damage will be done. As mainstream media outlets questioned the authenticity of the attack ads put forth by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and figures in both parties denounced them, the seeds of doubt that were planted received fertile soil, water, and sunshine.
It is just as easy to imagine her portrayal in satirical comedy. Even the Daily Show, hostile to neo-conservatism, will have a field day with Hillary Clinton. Her speaking ability is questionable; she can sometimes sound cold, disingenuous, or opportunistic. (Remember the speech at the NAACP?) Perhaps more damaging, is her appearance, her physical style, her womanhood. Even beyond the jokes related to menstruation, menopause, and mammary glands to which any woman candidate would be susceptible, Hilary Clinton’s style is particularly vulnerable to attack. She is as close to Janet Reno as she is to Madeline Albright. She will be portrayed as a frigid bitch, an old hag, a dumb blonde, and a WASP soccer mom all at once.
No amount of positive press, campaign ads, or endorsements will prevent the media’s construction of images like these or worse. American voters will be influenced by these images and consequently, Hillary Clinton will struggle to win November votes. Thus as we wonder and speculate about the political futures of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it is critical that we realize that it may not be the readiness of the American people for a minority or woman president that will determine the winner, but rather the degree to which the media sticks to archaic imagery that has been historically associated with their coverage of minorities and women at-large. Barack Obama will certainly tackle obstacles related to the media imagery associated with his racial makeup, yet those arguing in favor of Hillary Clinton’s electability have largely ignored the imagery challenges that she will come to face.