“Madam President”

Is America Ready for a Female President—or Just President Hillary?

Michelle Cottle on the EMILY’s List campaign to put a woman—ahem Hillary Clinton—in the White House.

In an impressive display of restraint, the gals at EMILY’s List did not mention the name Hillary Clinton until a full five minutes into Thursday morning’s kick-off of their new campaign to put a woman in the White House. That was the point at which Stephanie Schriock, the Dem-friendly group’s president, paused in her spiel about how fired up voters are to elect a woman to the highest office to coyly acknowledge that “one name seems to be getting mentioned more than others.” This sent the overwhelmingly female crowd packed into the Fourth Estate Room of the National Press Club into a fit of knowing chuckles.

Truth be told, no one at the rollout of “Madam President” needed to utter Hillary’s name at all. Even as Schriock stressed that the effort is not about any particular woman and lauded those filling the Democratic party’s “deep bench” (“Kathleen Sebelius, Janet Napolitano, Christine Gregoire, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand…”), pretty much everyone in the room—OK, pretty much everyone in politics—grasps that 2016 is all about Hillary. Either she’ll run and suck up all the light and oxygen in the race, or she won’t run, leaving both the Dems and the Beltway chattering class to spend the rest of the race endlessly musing about how things would be different “if only.”

It was firmly within this all-about-Hillary construct that all of the cheerleading and data points from the Thursday press conference were received. Most notably, as part of their presentation on the empirical evidence that Americans are itching for a female commander-in-chief, pollsters Jeffrey Liszt and Lisa Grove shared that, in a recent survey of voters in battleground states, a whopping 72% “believe that it is likely that our next president will be a woman.” This information, of course, makes sense only in a political landscape featuring Hillary. It may be that nearly three-quarters of voters are ready (perhaps even eager) to elevate a generic woman to the Big Chair. But, absent Hillary, no way 72% of any group would consider such an outcome likely in the very next election.

So it was that the Madam President rollout vacillated between organizers’ pretending that we weren’t all there to talk about Hillary and the assembled journalists relentlessly invoking her. The very first question tossed out was by a reporter who, citing a new Quinnipiac poll showing Hillary leading the Democratic pack by a mile, asked Schriock, “Have you or EMILY’s List urged Mrs. Clinton to run?” This struck the room as downright hilarious.

For her part, Schriock ducked the question by again floating the line (with a straight face no less) about this being “not just about one particular candidate” but part of “a larger national discussion.” No matter: A couple of questions later, another reporter asked more directly if the EMILY’s List chief “has had any conversations with Clinton.” At which point Schriock grinned, noted that this seemed like a good time to “set precedents,” and informed us in her most mockingly officious voice: “I will not talk about any conversation I may have had or not had with women who may be thinking or not thinking about running for office.”

Still, Schriock seemed caught off-guard when someone asked if all this perceived voter enthusiasm for a Madam President wasn’t overwhelmingly a “Hillary phenomenon?” Lisa Grove jumped in with the save, rambling on about open-ended poll questions and voters looking for certain qualities. But no one really seemed to be buying it.

For now, at least, any talk about “A Woman in the White House” translates into talk of President Hillary. And arguably no one knows this better than the group that has spent the past quarter century pushing to get women elected to office. So even as Schriock talks the talk about how she wants to see more women getting into the game, she never loses sight of her team’s star player. At one point, gently complaining that early polls for 2016 tend to feature a laundry list of male contenders, she challenged pollsters to “start testing other great women.”

“Truth is,” she insisted, “this is a wide open race.” Slight pause. “If Secretary Clinton doesn’t decide to do this.”