It has been a few days now since Tuesday's Democratic Debate in Philadelphia, plenty of time for the dust to settle and the campaigns to spin and hone their messages in response to their candidate's performances, and I think a real question that has to be asked coming out of that debate, aside from the individual policy differences between the candidates, is whether the front-runner for the Democratic nomination (and, in fact, the Presidency), Hillary Clinton, is tough enough to be President of the United States.
Usually, using the adjective "tough" to describe a Presidential candidate or questioning the "toughness" of a Presidential candidate would not be that out of the ordinary. But with Senator Clinton being the first woman with a legitimate chance of winning the Presidency, one has to be careful, just as the candidates have to be (and have) been careful, to not draw distinctions simply based on the gender of the candidates. But, in watching how Senator Clinton and her advisers have tried to "spin" her now admittedly poor performance in Tuesday's debate, she has opened the door to this kind of criticism, and it has nothing to do with whether a woman should be President, and everything to do with how this woman candidate is acting. Take a video released by her campaign for example. It's a well put together clip of all the times the other candidates mentioned Senator Clinton's name during the debate, with the tag line of "The Politics of Pile On" as opposed to Barack Obama's tag line that he practices "The Politics of Hope."
By trying to garner sympathy and support by claiming "the guys are ganging up on me" and "piling on," as Clinton's campaign put it, Senator Clinton is trying to exploit her difference in gender, while at the same time trying to also say she's as strong, or stronger than any of her male counterparts. No male candidate could, with a straight face, complain about other candidates "piling on," but Clinton can, and has, and maybe that's smart, because, 60% of Democratic voters are women, and there's support she can gain there, but it makes me uneasy, and it should make Democratic voters uneasy.
Elsewhere, her campaign has blamed her bad performance on tough questions from debate co-moderator Tim Russert. Her campaign leaked to Drudge that his questions "bordered on unprofessional" and a campaign conference call had one participant suggest that Russert should be "shot." Now I watched the entire debate, and there is no doubt, Russert asks tough questions, and a lot of those questions were directed at Senator Clinton, but that's what one should expect if one is the front-runner. And none of his questions were that unfair, from asking Hillary about why she told a mass audience one thing about Social Security reform and another to an individual privately, or why she won't release her records from the National Archives (her answer there was borderline dishonest by trying to first claim the Archives were releasing her records, which President Clinton has actively prevented), or what her view was on a controversial drivers license bill in her home state of New York. And if I learned anything from Scooter Libby's conviction earlier in the year, it's that Tim Russert wins credibility contests with politicians. Americans trust Russert, and rightly so, and attacking him, or his credibility, won't work.
And if Clinton can't handle questions from Tim Russert, or can't handle policy jabs from her fellow candidates, how will she be able to handle a general election, much less the life and death decisions she'll face in the White House as President? The Republicans, especially given their hatred for everything Clinton, will make Russert and the Barack Obama and John Edwards' of the world look like softies. And what about when Clinton sits across the table from foreign leaders who may not have the progressive view most Americans do, and may not take her seriously because she's a woman? Is she going to say then that those leaders are treating her unfairly because she's a woman? And if she does, what can she do about it? To be President, whether you are a man or a woman, you have to be able to handle the criticisms and the attacks which come with holding the office. And as Clinton and her campaign has shown this week, they may not be able to handle that pressure. As Barack Obama said today Clinton is trying to use her gender as a shield.
"So it doesn't make sense for her, after having run that way for eight months, the first time that people start challenging her point of view, that suddenly she backs off and says: 'Don't pick on me'," he said.
Senator Clinton is trying to have it both ways. She needs to appear tough and able to handle anything that comes her way as President, but at the same time, she and her campaign complain about Tim Russert asking her tough questions, and her opponents challenging her record (or, her refusal to release his records as the case may be). Conveniently, that's exactaly the kind of "double speak" Senator Obama and John Edwards are jumping on. And I think more than anything else, that is the question people need to be asking about Senator Clinton. Can she really handle being President? Because, not being able to handle a few tough questions from one of the most respected members of the national media, certainly does not lead one to believe that she can. Now, how best Obama and Edwards can exploit this weakness, especially given the nature of Iowa caucus-goers to punish those who appear to be campaigning negatively, that's a post for another day.