11.18.08

Will Secretary of State Be Enough for Hillary’s Army?

The political fate of both Clinton and Palin have left legions of American women rebellious.

American women ended the 2008 election cycle with a nasty taste in their mouths, and now they are loaded for bear (or moose, in the case of Sarah Palin’s voters).

Today’s Daily Beast poll shows that by an overwhelming 61 percent to 19 percent margin, women believe there is a gender bias in the media. And eight in ten upper-income women say that women have received unequal treatment in politics. That’s a lot of raging estrogen, with a heap of spending power—and it doesn’t want to settle for cosmetic surgery.

As Obama’s presidency gets grueling and sour, as it will surely very swiftly become, he will need Clinton again like Batman needs Robin.

Our poll suggests a lot of scope for a revised and updated women’s equality movement—as long as it doesn't call itself feminism. Only 20 percent of those surveyed are willing to attach themselves to a label that seems to have become as droopy as one of Bella Abzug’s hats. So passe is “feminism” that the bi-partisan woman’s activist group New Agenda, formed by Amy Siskind in August after Hillary’s defeat, is canvassing for new names to re-invigorate the cause (suggestions gratefully received).

“Feminism” threatens to go the way of “Black Power.” The young who are not gnarled and knocked around by the old fights are tired of the overtones of special pleading. It’s like the difference between the Barack generation and the Jesse generation. Obama types don’t lug around the ancient history bag that John Lewis dug into when he made that overkill comparison between McCain’s campaign and George Wallace’s.

Will the twenty percenters be assuaged if Hillary accepts the job of Secretary of State? Some will still grumble that it’s all window dressing: Hillary should have got the nomination. She should have been offered the vice presidential slot. Now she’s being offered a job on the victor’s terms, take it or leave it. At post-primary fund-raisers, when Hillary dutifully appealed for support for Barack, I suspect she had to conceal some exasperation of her own when impassioned devotees pleaded with her to “go on fighting for all of us.”

Hillary is more pragmatic than her "dead-enders." She knows that as Secretary of State she would be not just be numero uno in the Cabinet. She wouldn't shrink into the office—the office would have to grow to accommodate her. Her appointment would be a return to the tradition of the office being held by political giants. Presidents from Jefferson to Van Buren (with the exception of Andrew Jackson) held the position. The two women preceding Hillary, Madeleine Albright and Condi Rice, were not political figures, having never held or run for elective office. Hillary has a huge national constituency. It’s a great power base, and it makes Obama look good, too—magnanimous, presidential. And remember their combative, but respectful chemistry on the stump last summer when there was still a lot of buzz she could be his veep pick? Once Hillary dropped from view, no-drama Obama became a tiny bit boring for a while. As his presidency gets grueling and sour, as it will surely very swiftly become, he will need her again like Batman needs Robin. Not only is she super- smart and wired to Washington, she distracts the press while he gets on with governing.

More to the point, Secretary of State is a job that could offer Hillary a platform to complete the work she has always cared about most both before and during her time in the White House. She spent the two years of her presidential campaign proving she was an Iron Lady ready to be commander in chief at 3 a.m. But as Mark Penn has said, the 3 a.m. call turned out not to be national security after all, it was the economy.

This augurs well for a soft power emphasis in the job of secretary of state. Women will finally get a real advocate after eight years of Laura Bush being asleep at the switch and Bush’s enabler Condi hobbled by the far right’s positions on reproductive rights. Hillary understands to a sophisticated degree how women are an untapped resource in the developing world—and as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee she understands, too, that failed states and collapsing global economies create danger for America. When she was in the White House her earnest roundtable sessions talking about microcredit in villages in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and Nicaragua bored the pants off the traveling press, but they created jobs in those places, enhanced women’s status, energized local leaders, galvanized agencies, and helped promote democracy. “That’s not fluff,” to quote Melanne Verveer, her former chief of staff, who tells me that microcredit appeared on Hillary’s schedules more than 50 times in her travels as First Lady. If anything, it was Hillary’s passion that got Bill Clinton going on the global initiatives of his post presidency.

And though she talked softly on those First Lady tours Hillary could also carry a big stick. She wasn’t afraid to offend the Russians with her campaign to end the trafficking of girls sold into sex slavery in Thailand. She chose the venue of Beijing to denounce the crime of babies “denied food or drowned or suffocated or their spines broken simply because they are born girls.” Hell bent on enhancing her commander-in-chief cred in the primaries, she dialed back too much from what she had achieved for women. In 1995, her speech in Beijing to the UN fourth world conference for women was blacked out on official radio and television, but her ringing declaration that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” made her an icon (I won't say a feminist icon) still adored in places where she might now step off the Secretary of State’s reconfigured U.S. Air Force Boeing 757 bearing the seal of the United States of America.

So now let’s hope she nails the job. And God help Bill if he screws it up for her. If he does, he’ll find a ton of soft power coming down on his head.