The Magazine


Jan 25, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 18 • By DANIELLE CRITTENDEN
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IT WAS A WOMAN, COKIE ROBERTS, who dared blurt out the real reason why Elizabeth Dole has been catapulted into the first rank of potential Republican presidential candidates. "The difference is, she's in a skirt, and I think that the fact she's in a skirt does make a difference. I really do," Roberts said on ABC's This Week. "After what we've just been through, I think that women are looking better. The slogan could be 'I won't embarrass you in front of your children,' and I think that she could come on very strong in that direction." When future generations try to grapple with what damage Bill Clinton did to the office of the presidency, they might do well to study that quote.

It is certainly an excellent first step that Mrs. Dole is not a sex-crazed embarrassment to the nation. But what about the second step? Is there any better case for her than that? Or are Republicans, in their eagerness to prove to the female electorate that they care (and not just about Clinton's sex life), in danger of repeating the mistake the Democrats made after nominating Geraldine Ferraro in 1984?

Conservatives have long fought the affirmative-action mentality that says your skin color or your sex organs should give you an edge over more qualified candidates when applying for a job. They have argued eloquently that blacks and whites, men and women should all be judged by the same standards. But when Republicans speak about an Elizabeth Dole candidacy, they don't speak the way they would about a man. They don't detail her political experience, her stances on the issues, her vision for the country and its future. How could they? Her political experience is nil -- or, more exactly, vicarious. Her stances on the issues are a profound mystery. And her vision is couched in such wispy generalities as to defy not merely analysis, but comprehension. So instead her admirers gush about how "accomplished" and "smart" she is.

Black Americans rightly wince every time whites refer to a successful black as "articulate." They know it's a double-edged compliment in which are embedded offensively low expectations: "Look at him! He can talk!" Women ought to feel the same way about the words "accomplished" and "smart." Do a Nexis search and you can come up with more than 500 references to "Hillary Clinton" falling within ten words of the adjective "smart." A similar fog of accolades surrounds Elizabeth Dole. She is "impressive." She is "competent." She is "strong." But what do those words mean? She doesn't faint? She can give a speech? She won't embarrass you in front of your children? Is that really all Republicans demand of a female would-be president? Is that the best they think we can do?

Strategically, as Michael Barone notes, the mere fact of running a woman might be a good, short-term PR move for Republicans: It would "disarm the Democratic weapons systems" and prove -- if such a fact needs proving post-Paula Jones -- that Republicans respect women more than Democrats do. But the strategem won't necessarily win any substantial number of votes. "Women have rarely voted for Republican women in greater numbers than men have," observes poll analyst Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute.

Nor does the strategem do very much to assure effective leadership once the election is won. When the pundits who praise this woman who has never been elected to any office refuse to wonder, as they would wonder of a comparable man, "Can she govern?" they are guilty of exactly the same double-standard as those fire departments that hire women who can't lift a hose. And when they shrink from the even bigger question, "How would she govern?" they are guilty of something perhaps even worse.

In 1992 and 1996, the Republicans put at the top of their ticket men who could not explain why they wanted the job of president or what they would do if they got it. Is it really an improvement to put an equally uncertain woman there instead? What Elizabeth Dole believes is a closely guarded secret. Yes, when she was President Bush's secretary of labor, she strongly enforced child labor laws and workplace safety requirements. And when she was President Reagan's secretary of transportation, she ordered that rear-window brake light onto the backs of cars. She even redecorated Union Station and cleared away the regulations that inhibited shopping at Reagan National Airport -- Washingtonians thank her for both those achievements.