Why 2020 Will Be the Year of the Woman
One year after a Republican accused of sexual misconduct was elected president, and Democrats are the ones in turmoil about misogynistic behavior in their ranks.
Renewed media attention on sexual harassment and assault led to the twin New York Times and New Yorker exposés on Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul and Democratic donor. But Democrats did not rally to protect one of their own, and his attempt to curry sympathy with a pledge to fight the NRA fell flat. The subsequent #MeToo phenomenon continues to upend the left-leaning political and media worlds, with accusations of inappropriate behavior ensnaring liberal darling Sen. Al Franken, dean of the House and single-payer champion Rep. John Conyers, Florida Democratic Party chairman Stephen Bittel, New Republic publisher Hamilton Fish, former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and Vox Media editorial director Lockhart Steele.
The last time America experienced such a jarring moment regarding sexual misconduct was the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, which ended with the televised spectacle of his former assistant Anita Hill charging him with sexual harassment. Simmering anger over Hill’s treatment by the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee spilled into the next election. When four new women were elected to the Senate, increasing their ranks to six, 1992 was decreed to be “The Year of the Woman.”
Democrats, who have been unsparing to their own in this post-Weinstein moment, may be hungering for a Year of the Women 2.0—one that tells male Democrats to take a backseat for once and catapults a woman into the Oval Office. As the New Republic’s Jeet Heer proclaimed, “Trump’s election ripped wide a wound in America, and only a woman president can heal it.”
If so, she’s likely to have an early advantage: The 2020 Democratic primary landscape looks to be tilted to another woman presidential nominee. In 2016, women composed nearly 60 percent of the Democratic presidential primary electorate, many of whom are understandably pining for the karmic justice of defeating Trump with shards from a glass ceiling that Hillary Clinton could not break.
Moreover, the Democratic Party rank-and-file are defiantly continuing their tighter embrace of cultural liberalism in reaction to Trump’s shotgun marriage with social conservatives. In 2001, according to Gallup, only 36 percent of Democrats considered themselves liberal on social issues. Since 2015, self-identified social liberals encompass a 53-percent majority of Democrats. These are voters who ignored the naysayers and elected the first African-American president. They’ve grown accustomed to breaking barriers and won’t readily accept a coldly pessimistic argument that running another woman against Trump would be a bad idea.
The will is unquestionably there. But is there a who?
No one has been anointed as the consensus barrier-breaker the way Barack Obama was when he was selected to deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention. Four sitting female Democratic senators are presumed to be eyeing a 2020 run: Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. The Democratic gubernatorial bench is thin, with only two women, neither of whom has been making presidential moves. And while people (myself included) have fun speculating about a nonpolitician like Oprah Winfrey or Sheryl Sandberg, there’s no evidence either is preparing a run.
In such a crowded field, if a woman is going to lead the party, she will have to overcome some major obstacles, probably including one or two old white dudes and a few other women with the same bright idea.
Outrage alone is not going to produce another Year of the Woman. One woman will need to have ample reservoirs of charisma and guile in order to crush her opposition. And any man with a burning presidential ambition who wishes to prevent that from happening will have to, in perhaps cruel irony, prove beyond a doubt his feminist bona fides.
Faced with a president Democrats consider the greatest disgrace in American history since slavery, an obsession with the demographics of their next presidential nominee may seen gratuitous, even counterproductive. Shouldn’t Democratic energy be laser-focused on winning back wayward working-class Trump voters? The ones who decided Democrats care more about political correctness than bringing jobs back?
That attitude fails to appreciate what has defined modern liberalism over the past century.
“The Woman’s Hour has struck!” thundered Carrie Chapman Catt in 1916, as she exhorted her suffragist sisters to wage the final political battle for the 19th Amendment. “The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,” said then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, winning the fight for a civil rights plank in the platform, prompting a walkout by segregationist delegates and forever changing the party.
Moments like these have become the lifeblood of modern liberalism, when visionaries shoved aside naysayers and shattered outdated bigoted norms. The hunger for making more history is not easily suppressed, even though the pursuit of barriers to break often leads to internal friction and debilitating backlashes.
Catt’s call was a not-so-subtle response to the message abolitionist Wendell Phillips delivered to women’s suffragists 50 years earlier: “This hour belongs to the Negro.” In turn, the post-Civil War push for the 15th Amendment would not extend suffrage to all, but only to black males. This caused a schism among 19th-century progressive activists, with Frederick Douglass arguing, “When women, because they are women … are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts … then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own,” and Susan B. Anthony firing back, “with all the outrages he today suffers, he would not exchange his sex and take the place of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”
The uncomfortable jostling for barrier-breaking priority happened anew in the bitter 2008 Democratic primary, with Obama edging out Clinton. Some Democrats fretted that by nominating an African-American they may be blowing the election, but the optimists’ faith paid off. Another frontier had been crossed.
But instead of Clinton getting the next turn to make Oval Office history, the Obama presidency triggered what progressive activist Van Jones dubbed a “whitelash” that not only denied Clinton once again, but in the most humiliating way possible: at the hands of an blowhard with no governing experience who bragged about grabbing women’s genitals and shrugged off charges of sexual misconduct.
The Machiavellian strategist might counsel that the best way to combat Trump is to beat a strategic retreat in a culture war that Democrats just lost. But that’s not how the liberal heart beats. The women who make up the majority of the party will not be inclined to wait as long as Catt did. The woman’s hour must again strike.
The unquenched desire to break the White House glass ceiling and diminished tolerance for misogynistic behavior complicates the 2020 presidential primary for any male candidate. Whereas in 2008, Obama’s condescending “you’re likable enough” remark to Clinton could contribute to the loss of a single state, this time around it could immediately kill a primary candidacy dead. A mishandled case of sexual harassment by a campaign aide wouldn’t become a post-election footnote, but a real-time calamity. And every man seeking the Oval Office will need to answer one straightforward question: Why should someone vote for you over a well-qualified woman?
That’s a problem for the two old white men frequently mentioned as would-be candidates in 2020: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, both of whom lead the pack in early primary polling, but whose presidential hopes seem dimmer now than in the pre-Weinstein, pre-Franken, pre-Conyers era.
Biden has long been lauded by women’s rights groups for his leadership combating domestic violence and sexual assault. As senator, he drafted the landmark Violence Against Women Act that became law in 1994. As vice president, he took a leadership role in creating the Obama administration’s campus sexual assault policy. This year, he ripped Education Secretary Betsy DeVos when she deemed the policy too hard on the accused and rolled it back.
Biden will have no problem speaking knowledgeably and passionately about sexual assault. But he may have a harder time when it comes to speaking about sexual harassment.
Over his 40-plus years in office, Biden lived through a changing national understanding of the issue. And because he was in office at a time when sexual harassment wasn’t taken as seriously, he has a glaring weak spot: He was the chair of the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, and Anita Hill blames him for how she was effectively put on trial, and for failing to allow corroborating witnesses to testify.
Earlier this month, while speaking at Glamour’s Women of the Year event, Biden offered an apology, along with a defense of his own actions: “I believed Anita Hill. I voted against Clarence Thomas … I am so sorry that she had to go through what she went through.” But in a new interview with the Washington Post, Hill remains critical: “I still don’t think [Biden’s statement] takes ownership of his role in what happened. And he also doesn’t understand that it wasn’t just that I felt it was not fair. It was that women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to … show leadership on this issue on behalf of women’s equality. And they did just the opposite.”
For his own part, Sanders has shown an ability to win votes from women who see feminism and socialism as intertwined. “Feminism is a worldview that understands and critiques power,” wrote Slate’s Shiva Bayat during last year’s primary, and Sanders reflects that worldview because he “dares to challenge the economic system.”
But Sanders has always seemed more conversant on economic class issues than those that touch on feminism and identity. And he has yet to find a way to address those topics that suggests he understands why they’re important separate from class struggle. “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me,’” Sanders said in a Boston speech two weeks after Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industries.”
Beloved as he is to so many on the left, Sanders’ prominent speaking slot for last month’s Women’s Convention caused so much division among the progressive attendees that he belatedly declined the invitation. In April, the Vermont senator was scorched after he unapologetically endorsed an Omaha mayoral candidate deemed “anti-choice”; NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said that the decision to “support a candidate for office who will strip women—one of the most critical constituencies for the party—of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid.” (The fact that Sanders doesn’t seem to connect reproductive rights with women’s economic autonomy continues to frustrate many pro-choice activists.) And it’s hard to imagine Sanders’ strange 1972 essay about rape and gender roles being brushed off as dismissively now as it was just two years ago.
With the two male Democratic front-runners hobbled post-Weinstein, the opportunity is wide open for a strong woman—or four—to run.
Of the Big Four women mentioned in the 2020 conversation—Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar and Warren—Warren is the only one with a national following. In early primary polling, no other woman reaches double digits. But in the past two years, as she passed up a primary run against Clinton, Warren has lost some of her populist thunder to Sanders—and since she’ll never be able to out-socialist an avowed socialist, if he runs again, it could be hard for Warren to win the votes of the most ideologically uncompromising primary voters.
Which presents an alternative strategy: If Sanders runs, Warren could try to position herself as the more unifying and electable populist option. And with a slogan unwittingly handed to her from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” Warren may have an easier time blending feminist and economic populist messages.
One challenge for Warren is she has little experience in winning the votes of people of color, a core constituency within the Democratic Party—especially the African-American voters who dominate the Southern contests and gave Clinton her insurmountable delegate lead in 2016.
Enter Kamala Harris.
Harris—the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India—is the only woman of color seriously mentioned as a 2020 candidate, having instantly attracted presidential buzz upon her election to the Senate last year. She’s arguably the strongest speaker of the four women, even though Warren is no slouch on the stump. She has a potential geographic advantage, hailing from delegate-rich California. She’s steeped in criminal justice issues, having been a prosecutor, state attorney general and author of a book “Smart on Crime.” When a Trump adviser called Harris “hysterical” for her tough questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Democrats applauded her for getting under the White House’s skin.
But no one should assume the black community is a political monolith that will coalesce around a single candidate—and with Cory Booker likely to run, Harris may not be the only African-American senator in the race. Furthermore, some prominent Berniecrats have tried to blunt her rise by painting the Californian as the candidate of the donor class. The socialist magazine Jacobin has already mined her book to argue that she’s not progressive enough on criminal justice issues, potentially giving opponents ammunition to undermine her on her signature issue.
Neither Gillibrand nor Klobuchar known for the charismatic oratory that many voters equate with presidential timber—and female leaders have often come up against sexist standards of what a political leader should sound like. In lieu of dazzle, Gillibrand—who once said she’s “ruling … out” 2020, though no one seems to believe her—has sought to make the fight against sexual misconduct a signature issue.
She’s pushing for a tougher system of military justice for sexual misconduct cases in the armed forces, and last week she symbolically broke with the Democratic Party’s old guard by arguing that Bill Clinton’s Oval Office affair with an intern warranted his resignation. On paper, she may make the most sense for a post-Weinstein landscape.
Plus, she has shown the ability to navigate different sides of the cultural divide, having represented relatively conservative, and Rust Belt-adjacent, upstate New York, and now the more liberal urban and suburban parts of the state as senator. She made her mark by voting against more Trump Cabinet nominees than any other senator, yet she also regularly seeks out Republican co-sponsorship for her legislation. She may be able to strike the right balance between fealty to progressive principle and get-it-done bipartisanship.
But all of these strengths come with potential weakness. The Democratic Party still has a lot of older voters who are Bill Clinton loyalists. Gillibrand’s inability to get her military justice bill passed casts doubt on her effectiveness. And her early record as a relatively conservative upstate New York congresswoman—one who opposed gun control and citizenship for undocumented immigrants, positions since abandoned—will surely be fodder for opponents on the left.
Of the lot, Klobuchar is the least left wing. In Iowa earlier this year, the Minnesotan expressed allegiance with those “in the middle of the country,” geographically and politically. She is only one of the Big Four who has not backed Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation, and she has said that while she is pro-choice herself, being against abortion should not disqualify one from being a Democrat. If she runs in 2020, her challenge is to convince progressive primary voters that to get Middle America to accept a woman president, you need someone from Middle America more than you need ideological purity tests.
If experience and effectiveness will account for anything, Klobuchar might have a shot. Of the Big Four, she has the longest tenure in the Senate, and in the last congressional session, she sponsored the most legislation that actually became law.
It’s a sign of how far women have come in the Democratic Party that more than one woman is positioned to make a serious run for the presidency in 2020. But that success comes with an inherent downside; it complicates the task of catapulting a single woman into the top tier, where she could become the standard-bearer.
It’s a whole lot easier to nominate a woman if there’s only one serious contender for the job, especially since Sanders and Biden retain long-cultivated, sizable and potentially stubborn bases of support, limiting room in the top tier. The “female lane” is a standard that would never be applied to a male candidate, but the hard reality is that primary candidates are competing for the many of the same set of donors, volunteers and voters. The one who gets the most has the best shot.
Across the Big Four, each has strengths and weakness, and none has an overwhelming advantage over the others. If no single woman can emerge from the pack, and if a Biden or Bernie can lean on the stronger feminist elements of their records to claim decent share of the female vote, a man could still end up with the prize.
What can Democrats who, as Heer says, want to “resolve right now to nominate a woman” do? Trying to orchestrate a backroom deal in which only a single female mounts a campaign is not a feasible option; no one has an incentive to defer to somebody else. And any sort of nonaggression pact to protect against sororicide could easily fall apart in crunch time.
There is no resolving in advance; the only way out is through. One candidate will simply have to be better than everyone else.
When the New Republic’s Jason Zengerle examined why Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley couldn’t beat backbench Republican state legislator Scott Brown in the 2010 special election to fill the Senate seat vacated after Ted Kennedy’s death, while two years later Elizabeth Warren could, he concluded that “Warren is a political superstar.” As for why Coakley lost to a bland Republican male? “We’ll know Massachusetts has reached true gender equality when its female hacks stand as good a chance as its male ones.”
Everything about 2016 told us that we haven’t reached true gender equality, in Massachusetts or anywhere else. And for a woman to win in 2020, she can’t be a pedestrian politician. She must be a superstar.
And she won’t become a superstar by anointment, as Obama was in 2004. She will have to make it happen by breaking out of the Senate procedural muck, delivering soaring speeches, crafting signature policy ideas, picking high-profile fights, outwitting conservatives and proving she knows how to triumph over the inevitable misogynistic attacks.
Anyone interested in fulfilling this role shouldn’t wait around. For Democrats, 2020 may be the Year of the Woman. But it’s no fait accompli that it will actually be a woman who carries the Democratic banner.