With her latest primary wins, Hillary Clinton is all but guaranteed the Democratic nomination. But exit polls in some of the states where she has been victorious indicate that she is far from guaranteed the presidency. More pointedly, polls make it clear that if Hillary wants to win she may have to find the courage to admit something most women are afraid to.
While a majority of recent Democratic voters deemed Clinton trustworthy, Democrats who ranked honesty as the most important quality in their decision chose Bernie Sanders. Additionally more than half of Americans hold an unfavorable opinion of her. Clinton’s favorability numbers are still better than Donald Trump’s. But the question is not really whether a majority of American voters will choose Donald Trump. They won’t. The question is whether enough voters opposing his candidacy will turn out—on Election Day and as volunteers beforehand— for Hillary Clinton to win.
The even larger question, however, is why so many voters have such strong negative reactions to Hillary Clinton in the first place. After all, many of the same voters who disdain her for being “dishonest” will cheer for her husband. You know the one who actually did lie to all of us. Remember “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”?
Of course for many the distinction between how the two Clintons are viewed is clear. He’s a man and she’s a woman. We’ve all heard it said before, “A woman is called ‘difficult’ for behavior that gets a man hailed as ‘assertive.’” Bill Clinton is not seen as a liar, but simply as a mischievously rakish leader who was economical with the truth. Hillary, on the other hand, is a lying harpy.
I’m sure that sexism has played a role in how Hillary Clinton is perceived and critiqued by some. Because no woman in the public eye as much as she is or as long as she has been is immune to sexist critiques. (I get them regularly.) But the reality is that the real difference between Bill and Hillary Clinton is a difference all of us have faced in life, whether in junior high, or the office. Bill is simply more likable.
In the same way George W. Bush was seen as more fun and friendly than his more intellectually accomplished and responsible brother Jeb, Bill is preferred by most people with a pulse over his more responsible wife. Every election we hear about the importance of the so-called “beer test,” as in “who do voters want to have a beer with?” Hillary Clinton screams a lot of things, but person you want to chill with in your free time is not one of them. (Which is why President Obama’s backhanded compliment of Clinton as “likable enough” landed like the diss that it was.)
But I believe the real problem for Hillary Clinton is not that her husband is more likable than she is, but that it is obvious that she cares so much—like a lot of women do. I remember a conversation I had with a female friend just before an important meeting I was supposed to have with a prominent media person. I was nervous because for a variety of reasons I suspected the person I was meeting with might not be a personal fan of mine. When I finished laying out my concerns my friend—who is significantly more successful said: “This is the difference between men and women. Why do you care if he likes you or not? You got the meeting because his boss’s boss thinks you’re qualified, and if they tell him to work with you, he will.”
This may sound like a fairly unimportant anecdote in the context of a presidential campaign but for some of the women I’ve shared it with over the years it is revelatory. The reason: because women are taught early on to spend much of our time, energy and social capital pleasing others. Boys are taught to be smart. Girls are taught to be smart—but not at the expense of being popular, and certainly not at the expense of being pretty. Because after all, accomplishments ultimately mean very little in the big scheme of things if when it’s all said and done you’re a woman who is perceived as unattractive, unlovable and unlikable.
Hillary Clinton, the candidate voters don’t trust, was deemed the most trustworthy presidential candidate on terror following the recent Brussels attack. But of course that’s not quite the same as being loved or liked, but it does seem to indicate that plenty of Americans know that the job of president is far too serious to be decided the same way we decide who we want to sit with in the cafeteria in high school.
Instead of trying desperately to generate laughs on “Saturday Night Live” or “Broad City” or some other outlets her team of advisors have convinced her are essential to making her likable enough to win, she should finally do something most of us would never have the courage to do but wish that we did, which is to say this: “I know I’m not what you’d call likable and that you may not like me or think of me as a fun beer date. But I’m really qualified, and for a job this serious I think that’s what should matter. After all, do you care whether your heart surgeon is likable?”