Is America ready for its first all-women ticket?
Edward Luce: Conveying strength without alienating swing voters is a challenge few male candidates have to confront
Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren: wants to unrig American capitalism in favour of the middle classes. Photograph: Sara Stathas/Bloomberg
Let us imagine Democrats do not pick a septuagenarian man to run against Donald Trump next year. Some may think this far-fetched. After all, Joe Biden (76) leads the polls and Bernie Sanders (77) comes second. But both have been losing ground to two women, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.
Momentum counts in primary elections. Hillary Clinton may have botched her chances in 2016. But she was one of a kind. It is quite possible there could be two women on the Democratic ticket next year. More to the point, it could be desirable.
This is not simply because these candidates are women. Unlike Clinton, neither Warren nor Harris are running to break the glass ceiling. Warren wants to unrig American capitalism in favour of the middle classes. Harris wants to make America a fairer society. They share pros and cons. Both are strong figures who generate excitement among – and raise a lot of money from – the party’s base. Each has also made herself hostage to fortune by pledging to scrap private health insurance (although Harris appeared to qualify that pledge after making it during a televised debate in June).
Big differences also separate them. Warren can outsmart most economists. Harris has yet to develop a memorable economic theory. The latter is charismatic. The former is professorially earnest. And so on. The point is that their gender barely features in these comparisons. There will be another four women on the debate stage next week – Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson, none of whom has cleared 1 per cent in the polls. Their failure to break through has as little to do with being women as the rising fortunes of Warren and Harris.
That is the Democratic party. The perennial question is whether America as a whole is ready for a female president, let alone an all-women ticket.
Part of the answer is that it depends on which woman. It is hard to imagine Ivanka Trump, who harbours dynastic ambitions, being elected president. It is possible to see Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the UN, breaking through. There is an old quip about a man who is asked whether he believes in marriage: “That depends on whom I’m married to,” he replies. Both Warren and Harris would beat Trump in the popular vote according to polls, though by a slimmer margin than Biden.
No poll has yet matched the two up against Trump and Mike Pence, the vice-president. I suspect the latter’s prudishness would make him vulnerable on the stage. Pence once said the only female with whom he could dine alone was his wife.
The concern lingers whether any woman at all, even an American version of Margaret Thatcher, could be elected US commander-in-chief. Political consultants place great emphasis on “likeability”. Women usually rank lower than men. If female politicians display grit, they are considered pushy. If they show courtesy, they are weak. Conveying strength without alienating the swing voter is a challenge few male candidates have to confront.
This is where Trump’s ratings are an asset for any female opponent. He scores very low on likeability, and even worse among women voters. It ought to be possible for Warren, or Harris, to exploit that. Reaction against misogyny may win them more votes than it would for a male nominee.
It is often supposed that Clinton lost in 2016 because she is a woman. But the impression that she thought it was her turn also alienated voters. One constant of US presidential history is that voters choose personalities opposite to the incumbent. Barack Obama’s ethnicity and intellectual bent offered a mirror image of the evangelical, tongue-tied George W Bush. The latter, in turn, presented an antidote to the priapic Bill Clinton.
Which of Trump’s traits will voters most wish to bury? There is a menu of options. Some abhor Trump’s ignorance. They want a president who can place Africa on a map. Others dislike his dishonesty – almost 11,000 lies in office, and counting. Many people worry about his business conflicts of interest. Then there is his Olympian ego. Trump is everywhere at all times. If you measure a presidency by media saturation, Trump is already on his fourth term.
Both Warren and Harris are his antithesis on almost all counts. Unlike Biden and Sanders, it is possible to imagine either, or both, serving two full terms. It is entirely plausible that most Americans crave a break from the most towering male ego in memory. They would doubtless be able to find another self-admiring man should they develop buyer’s remorse. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019