Does Hillary need a man to make her electable?

April 22, 2014

This was the rhetorical question: “Name one person who would vote for Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket in 2016 who would NOT vote for her if Elizabeth Warren were the vice presidential nominee.”

The question was prompted by Warren’s upcoming visit to Portland, part of the requisite book tour promoting what has been called the requisite book for a planned presidential bid, sparking speculation that Warren plans to challenge Clinton’s presumed candidacy for the Democratic nomination. There are many reasons to doubt that, not the least of which is that Powell’s booked Warren into one of their suburban bookstores rather than their flagship store. I speculated that either Clinton has given Warren the green light or Warren is setting herself up for second place on the ticket, which led to the discussion of whether a Clinton-Warren ticket was viable.

Warren as vice president puts her in position to run for the presidency in 2024. The possibility of Clinton serving as president for eight years, followed by Warren for another eight years, reminds me of a story Mary Robinson told at the Women in Global Leadership conference in 2006 in Abu Dhabi. The president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, Robinson was succeeded by Mary McAleese, who served until 2011. The two of them joked, Robinson said, that young boys growing up in Ireland ask: “Mum, why can’t I be president when I grow up?”

Beyond the chuckle, Robinson’s story illustrates two important points. One is the value of members of a community seeing themselves in their leaders. The other is the value of women in leadership being taken for granted, not being some blip in statistics.

The number of women who have been elected as head of state on their own merits, and not as widows replacing their husbands, continues to grow, with presidents and prime ministers in South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Even the most generous criteria for such a list, however, does not include anyone, ever, in the United States. [See a list of current world leaders here: http://www.guide2womenleaders.com/Current-Women-Leaders.htm]

We should be way beyond the question of whether a woman can effectively serve as president of the United States. However, if a qualified woman has to have a male vice president, I question whether we’ve really crossed the threshold necessary to give much of a cheer for the advancement of women.

This brings me back to the question at the top of this blog: Does Clinton have to have a male vice president on the ticket in order to be elected? More important, if she does, why?

The conventional wisdom would say that she needs a man on the ticket for diversity, i.e., to pull in the votes she can’t get on her own. Historically, presidential candidates choose vice presidents from states they need to win and might not. They often choose VPs who have run against them in the primaries and shown their ability to raise funds and build an organization of loyal supporters. They choose running mates who balance the ticket philosophically or experientially—more or less conservative, more or less Catholic, more or less of a Washington insider.

What they don’t do is choose a running mate who could be seen as more accomplished, more electable, more attractive to the electorate. If the running mate looks like a better choice, it highlights the candidate’s weakness.

That makes a male VP on a Clinton ticket a Catch-22. There are undoubtedly men who would bring balance to a ticket with Clinton at the top for reasons other than sex category. But if Clinton needs a man so that there is a Y chromosome on the ticket, does it suggest that being female is not only a strategic deficit but an actual leadership deficit? If Clinton needs a man to attract voters who wouldn’t vote for her otherwise, would those voters support her even with a man on the ticket?

What balance would a man bring? Will his presence quietly reassure voters that there’s someone who can step in when the president gets too emotional? Someone she’ll listen to when she can’t find the strength or courage to pick up the red phone, press the button, order the hit?

I think anyone who votes for Clinton, with or without a man on the ticket, has gotten past the idea that women are biologically unsuited for high pressure leadership. Clinton herself has helped put that myth to rest with her achievements as Secretary of State. So it would make sense that such a person would not have a problem with a female vice president, either. I’m left believing that the only strategic reason for gender balance on the 2016 presidential ticket is that it implicitly promises that if men support Clinton’s presidency, women promise not to get too greedy about power. We agree to give it back in 2020 or 2024.

This is the promise Barack Obama had to make. We have seen the fear his presidency has engendered among many in white America, the effort to make his presidency one-term, to paint an African American president as a failure so that it never happens again. Had he chosen an African American vice president, it would have been interpreted by some as not merely an effort to participate in, but an effort to overthrow a racially situated power structure. He had to communicate, as offensive as the need for it was, that he was not going to be a “black” president. He had to have a diverse Cabinet, but not so much that it appeared that African Americans had “taken over” the government. He had to promise to give it back to white America.

Clinton, if she runs, may have to make the same promise, eliminating Warren from consideration for the VP spot. Clinton might have to promise to reseal the glass ceiling if she shatters it.


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