I read a wonderful book on habits recently by one of my favorite self help authors, Gretchen Rubin. Better Than Before is a book that offers insights to making better choices and developing better habits that help us maximize our lives. It has me thinking a bit in the opposite direction, though, about things not to do, or, what for a lack of a better term, I’m calling “unhabits.” One of my favorites is not to speak negatively about anything. I think that it serves no purpose and is a downer. For example, I recently met a woman who is already upset because winter will come. She said, “I hate winter and now it is fall which means that winter will be next.” Hmmm, unless she relocates quickly, seems to me that she’s doomed. I mean, you can’t stop the winter, so try not to be so negative, OK? It is too depressing. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the debate coming up on Tuesday night and about how good a debater Hillary Clinton has been most of her life. A story in today’s NY Times sums up Hillary’s history of outstanding debating. I’m sure she is in overdrive right now prepping. If I were advising her, I’d give her one big piece of advice, a “not-to-do or an unhabit, if you will. Here it is: Don’t play the gender card–even a little. Because in 2008 it really backfired. Even though, my analysis of her debates reveals that she won them. All of them. She was more knowledgeable about issues, and quicker on her feet.
Presidential debates are important. There was a time when presidential debates, lasted a few days in the news cycle, however the Internet has made debate performances live on in the collective minds and hearts of voters long after the initial airing.
Even in the days of a short press cycle and limited video replay, some of the best debate performances in history have shaped presidential politics: the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960; the first Kerry-Bush debate in 2004, where John Kerry went from being way down in the polls to a few points ahead; the Clinton town-hall debate in 1992, where Bill Clinton connected with voters and the patrician George H.W. Bush checked his watch; the vice presidential debate of 1988 when Bentsen obliterated Dan Quayle with is “I knew Jack Kennedy, and you’re no Jack Kennedy” zinger, and the 1996 presidential debate where Al Gore bested Jack Kemp with his undeniable wonkiness, to name just a few.
With the first Democratic primary debate next Tuesday, from Las Vegas, there is much speculation on how Hillary Clinton will make the seemingly never-ending email story recede and her vision for America clear. How will she hold on to and expand her lead, showcase her strengths and counter the populist outsider, Bernie Sanders? Her strong performance at more than twenty Democratic presidential debates in 2008 offers a clue, but one thing she must not do is discuss her gender. Once again she will be the only woman on the debate stage, and whether or not there is a sense that her male opponents are attacking her, she needs to stay away from calling attention to her pioneering status as the first viable, non-symbolic front running woman candidate for president of the United States.
Hillary Clinton performed well in the debates in 2008 and she rarely stumbled. In her debate in Philadelphia, however, the sense that her male opponents were “piling on” made Republicans accuse her of playing the gender card, something that women candidates simply cannot do successfully. Afterwards, during a speech at Wellesley, she noted that “this all-women’s college prepared me to compete in the all-boys’ club of presidential politics” further underscoring her trailblazing status, prompting opponents to complain that she was “using” her gender. Later she clarified that “I don’t think they’re picking on me because a woman, I think they are picking on me because I’m winning.”
Shirley Chisholm walked away from her 1972 bid for the presidency predicting that we would have a black president before we have a woman president because “people are more sexist than racist.”
My co-authors, Ted Sheckels, Diana Carlin and I observed that women running for office are wise to show restraint when describing their history-making bid because gender rhetoric does not play as well. Obama’s much lauded speech in March, 2008 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is widely seen as an important, even groundbreaking speech in American history because it confronted the country’s racial divide. A speech on gender divide would not receive the same positive attention, perhaps because a women’s gendered struggle resonates with only a part of their audience. The second wave feminism no longer has the same appeal it did. So women candidates have to find a way to talk about gender issues to women beyond a certain age while acting fully empowered and talking about what they will do as president to women of a younger age. To address two different audiences of women, while also addressing men, requires rhetorical restraint and finesse.