Hillary's 'Mommy-Knows-Best' Progressivism

Pity the feminist theorists. For decades, they have argued that women's innate capacity for collaborative, compassionate leadership would transform politics. Carol Gilligan famously argued that men and women possess distinct moral systems that lead women to speak "in a different voice"; Maternal Thinking author Sara Ruddick argued that women's role as mothers and nurturers made them particularly well-suited to exercise a form of benign power that would resist conflict and war-making. Hillary Clinton's campaign for president has eviscerated these claims.

That's is not to say Hillary lacks traditional female qualities. But like the ambitious, gimlet-eyed anti-heroine Tracy Flick in the movie, "Election," Hillary's femininity is entirely situational. On the stump she remains diabolically on-message, her personal revelations limited to frequent reminders of how hard she is working and abstract references to her 35 years of experience. The therapeutic, inspiring rhetoric of hope so capably deployed by her husband when he was a presidential candidate (now polished to a high sheen by Barack Obama) is missing from Hillary's campaign. Her misty moment on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, when, voice cracking, she fleetingly appeared emotionally vulnerable, was much commented upon as a departure from her usually disciplined style. In fact, far more revealing than the glimmer of her tears were her words, which were typically Manichean and self-assured: "Some of us are right and some of us are wrong." It's no wonder the doyenne of daytime empathy and connection -- Oprah -- is stumping for Obama.

Like any good alpha female, Hillary has also discovered the value of delegating the less savory task of attacking opponents to someone else: her husband Bill, who has taken to his new role as mean-girl-in-chief with relish, criticizing Obama on everything from his Iraq War position to his personal experience, all without significantly compromising his own popularity among Democratic voters. Feminist theorists such as Carol Gilligan, who described women as web-builders, eager to share power likely did not have this sort of collaboration in mind. When asked by Obama to answer for Bill's often-outlandish attacks, Hillary on several occasions has deflected the question with an unfortunately worded reply about how all of the candidates have "passionate spouses."

"I found my own voice," Hillary declared after winning the New Hampshire primary, but by South Carolina that voice had the distinctive tone of an overconfident harangue. During the debate in Myrtle Beach, Hillary showcased a far more aggressive personal style, pursuing Obama relentlessly about remarks he had made a week earlier about Republican ideas:

CLINTON: "The facts are that he has said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years, and we can give you the exact quote.

OBAMA: Let's talk about it. Hillary, I will be happy to provide you with the information about all -- all the spending that we do. Now, let's talk about Ronald Reagan. What you just repeated here today is...

CLINTON: Barack...

OBAMA: Wait. No. Hillary, you just spoke.

CLINTON: I did not say anything about Ronald Reagan.

OBAMA: You just spoke for two minutes.

CLINTON: You said two things.

OBAMA: You just...

CLINTON: You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan and you talked about the ideas...

OBAMA: Hillary, I'm sorry. You just...

[Moderator, Wolf] BLITZER: Senator...

CLINTON: I didn't talk about Reagan.

OBAMA: Hillary, we just had the tape. You just said that I complimented the Republican ideas. That is not true.

Hillary's hectoring of Obama continued throughout the debate, leaving viewers with the disconcerting sense that they were witnessing a testy marital spat. Obama, exhibiting an extraordinary amount of politesse, frequently chided, to no avail, "Let me finish, Hillary. Let me finish." Hillary was practicing what pop linguist Deborah Tannen calls "Uncooperative Overlap," a style of communication usually seen in men, whose deliberate interruptions are meant to signal their dominance. At the same time, Hillary also focused myopically on the details of small statements made by Obama, an argument style usually practiced by women. As couples therapist Christine Northam recently told the London Times, describing how married men and women argue, "Women are more manipulative and try and present a problem and go on and on about it without being succinct."

Hillary adopted a different approach in the final primary debate in Los Angeles -- less belligerent wife, more history-making uber-woman. Weaseling around a question about Senator Edward Kennedy's endorsement of Obama, she chirped, "I think having the first woman president would be a huge change for America and for the world." Indeed, in her opening statement that night, she said, "On January 20, 2009, the next President of the United States will be sworn in on the steps of the Capitol." The look of eager anticipation on her face suggested she's already picked out her outfit for the occasion.

Hillary owes much of her polarizing presence to her situational invocation of her femininity (and her shared history with Bill), creating what writer Jack Hitt described as a cultural "Hillary Rohrschach Test." None of this is a surprise, of course. Women in power have rarely conformed to the stereotypes promoted by difference feminists or fulfilled the worst fears of misogynists. Yet one of the most notable and surprising features of feminine political power in modern times is how often it comes on the coattails of husbands or fathers: Benazir Bhutto's ill-fated bid to run Pakistan, for example, or the election this fall of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the former first lady of Argentina, as that country's president. Despite her mentions of making history, Hillary is no modern heroine; rather, in the more traditional style that thrives in autocracy, she is, like George W. Bush, the beneficiary of the privileges of dynastic power -- a power that has considerable appeal even in a democracy.

The political has always been personal for Hillary. It is this eerily seamless merging of the two that leaves some voters unsettled and others impressed with her discipline. In the final primary debate in Los Angeles, she avoided answering a question about her husband's role in the campaign by saying, "I have made it very clear that I want the campaign to stay focused on the issues that I'm concerned about, the kind of future that I want for our country, the work that I have done for all of these years. And that is what the campaign is about." Hillary's choice of language is noteworthy: she talks about "the kind of future I want for our country" rather than what the country needs. This is the language of paternalism, and just as "paternalistic" has become a pejorative term in political parlance, so too, might Hillary's unique brand of maternalism -- a stern and instrumental, mommy-knows-best progressivism that has at least had the effect of irrevocably undermining the tenets of difference feminism.

Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.