Stop the Feminist Guilt Trip

By running a passive race, Martha Coakley not only imperiled her chances of winning the Massachusetts Senate seat; she let women down. Dana Goldstein on the hunger for a better kind of candidate.

I’ll be blunt: Martha Coakley, the suddenly embattled Democratic nominee for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, has run a bad campaign. And that is very bad for women, and for the future of women in American politics.

During the 2008 Democratic primaries, older feminists were constantly chiding younger ones for not flocking to Hillary Clinton’s cause. Author Anne Kornblut is still at it, as she promotes her new book about the campaign, Notes from the Cracked Ceiling. “Daughters did not much care whether a woman won or lost,” Kornblut generalizes in a recent Washington Post op-ed. “There was nothing, in their view, all that special about electing a woman—particularly this woman—president.”

What female politicians were supposed to have learned form Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid was that it is OK to embrace history—and to connect with people.

This argument has always been insulting. It denies younger women political agency and intellectual sophistication, ignoring, for example, that Clinton’s support for the Iraq War had been totally out of step with Generation Y, which saw in Barack Obama a representative of its own antiwar, internationalist, multiracial identity. Many younger women voters understood that as wonderful as it would be to elect a woman president, it should be the right woman—someone who inspired them.

Coakley’s embarrassing self-immolation in recent days is a reminder that being a woman is never enough if a candidate can’t run a tip-top campaign and ignite the grassroots. For weeks, nervous Democrats fretted that Coakley, Massachusetts’ long-serving and highly respected attorney general, was hosting too few public events and doing too little travel around the state. The tough prosecutor seemed to be resting on her laurels, believing the endorsement of the Kennedy clan and a 3-to-1 Democrat-to-Republican registration advantage would be all she needed to carry her over the finish line.

But Coakley misread the country’s mood, from the Tea Party movement’s increasing savvy in online organizing to independent disillusionment with government to liberals’ growing disenchantment with what many see as the White House’s gutless agenda. She coasted over the holidays, when she needed to be hitting the gas. Now it’s all catching up to her, with polls showing a once-unassailable lead shrinking to the single digits. One poll from Suffolk University even has Coakley’s opponent, state senator and Tea Party darling Scott Brown, enjoying a four-point lead.

Big Fat Story: The Nail-Biter in Massachusetts Samuel P. Jacobs: Mitt Romney’s Man You don’t inherit Senate seats; you earn them. And Coakley didn’t seem to want to do the basic things needed to get the job. Disastrously, Coakley told the Boston Globe Wednesday that unlike Brown, she didn’t have time to meet and greet regular folks face-to-face, “standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands? This is a special election. And I know that I have the support of Kim Driscoll.” (Driscoll is the mayor of Salem, Massachusetts, population 40,407.)

For someone afraid of getting cold, Coakley is infamously icy. In marked contrast to the the man whose gargantuan shoes she’d like to fill, she doesn’t talk often about her family or her public-policy passions. She declines to discuss the historic nature of her campaign, which could make her Massachusetts’ first female senator. “To me, it’s secondary,’’ she says.

Coakley supposedly has a quick wit and is quite the yarn-spinner, but these attributes are rarely seen in public. When a member of her entourage shoved a conservative reporter in Washington, D.C. Wednesday night, as she looked on, she seemed flummoxed as to how to respond, giving a legalistic statement that only fanned the flames of controversy. “I’m not sure what happened,” Coakley told reporters. “I know something occurred, but I’m not privy to the facts. I’m sure it will come out, but I’m not aware of that.”

It’s sad, because what female politicians were supposed to have learned form Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid was that it is OK to embrace history—and to connect with people. The electorate warmed to Hillary when she cried on television in New Hampshire discussing her work-life balance challenges, and when she finally acknowledged the “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling made by her voters.

Coakley doesn’t seem to have learned those lessons. Maybe it’s not her nature to be charismatic or open. God knows, women of her generation—Coakley is 56—didn’t rise to the top of hard-headed, male-dominated professions like law by being bubbly cheerleaders. And it’s human nature to want to protect one’s privacy. “I just know when I’m addressing a jury what I have to do, and what I have to communicate is different from when I’m talking to my husband,’’ she says. “My job is to make sure that I communicate my message.”

The thing is, running for office is not exactly like winning over a jury, and being a politician on the national stage is nothing like a normal job. It’s a task that requires outsize ambition, ego, and a deft, emotional appeal to voters’ aspirations—something President Obama well-understood with his own campaign rhetoric of “hope” and “change,” even though those slogans look increasingly tarnished a year into his term.

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If Martha Coakley isn’t elected to the U.S. Senate, Democrats will lose their filibuster-proof majority, and Obama’s agenda will be at serious risk. The passage of health-care reform will suddenly shift from sure-thing to nail-biter. Women and children—especially the working-class families who stand to benefit from the expansion of Medicaid—will suffer. There will be next to no chance of progress on increasing access to abortion or birth control, in a nation where 87 percent of counties have no abortion provider.

Electing women to public office is a crucial goal. A shamefully tiny 16.8 percent of Congress is female, and research shows female politicians are more likely to be pro-choice and to support spending on health care and education than male politicians, even of the same party. But to succeed, the Beltway organizations that promote feminist candidates, such as EMILY’s List and NOW, need to throw their support behind women who want the job, and have the political skills to get it; the passive coronation of the wrong female candidates can do a lot of harm to American women. Even if Martha Coakley, their cause célèbre, pulls through this race, she will enter the Senate in a vastly weakened position, perceived as a frontrunner who blew her lead and mangled her campaign. What’s more, Coakley’s lack of fight raises questions about her ability to effectively advocate for women’s issues as a legislator in a deeply divided Congress. It will be tough to build grassroots excitement around her reelection, and she may face primary challengers in 2012.

If that’s a feminist milestone, we ought to be aiming much, much higher. It’s time for women’s organizations to look for candidates who are as confident and personable as they are experienced, and who are as committed to the slog of campaigning as they are to the issues. And maybe it’s time to admit that younger women weren’t thumbing their noses at the sisterhood when they supported Barack Obama. They were simply listening to their political instincts—instincts that told them that at the end of the day, a candidate’s agenda, ability to connect with the electorate, and determination to fight to win are more important than their gender.

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.