Five Candidates on What It Will Take to Shatter the Most Stubborn Glass Ceiling

“Part II of this discussion on the power of women in politics today”

One of the upsides to running in 2020 is that nothing much is a shocker anymore. Porn stars and Russian hackers? The president of the United States, in a span of a couple of days, picking fights with Meghan Markle and Bette Midler? Maybe I am being overly optimistic, but I see something liberating—particularly for female candidates—in Trump’s subverting of traditional political norms . . . because women presidents aren’t the norm either. Thanks to Trump and a news cycle that is suffering from acute attention-deficit disorder (Avenatti who?), women candidates, perhaps, don’t have to worry so much about being perfect, about biting their tongue and saying what they think voters want to hear. That’s not to say voters are ready to embrace them live-streaming an appointment with their dental hygienist or showing up on the debate stage without makeup, but every woman in the race appears to have blissfully cast aside Hillary’s (often painful but also understandable) abundance of caution. They do not tweet by committee or adhere to a media strategy that essentially ignores us. Harris is cautious, yes, but not so much that she doesn’t speak her mind. In a blistering critique of Biden’s civil rights record in the first debate, Harris took apart the early front runner with military precision. Even MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough had to concede, “It’s interesting, over these two nights after we’ve been looking at polls showing two old white men in first place, the winner of both nights were women.”

Harris’s criticism of Biden’s past opposition to school busing signalled that unlike Hillary, who fastidiously protected her lead, Harris wouldn’t hold back against Trump on the debate stage. There are other stark differences: Whereas Hillary disappeared off the campaign trail for days to collect big checks from donors, Warren has banned private fundraisers altogether, a move that made her own team worry that she’ll be at a financial disadvantage. (In the first three months of 2019, Warren raised more than $6 million, putting her in fifth place, according to federal filings released in April.) And yes, all of these candidates plan to spend a lot of time in Wisconsin. In fact, if there is any candidate who risks being Hillaryed, it is not a woman but Biden, whose skimpy campaign schedule, ample fundraising, connection to ’90s-era policies, and do- no-harm approach to the press give me flashbacks to 2016, when Hillary’s press corps used to joke that “spontaneity is embargoed until 4 p.m.”

THE CANDIDATES I SPEAK TO agree that 2020 is less about the symbolism of having a woman president (though that would be nice) than it is about substance—how her life experiences would influence policy- and decision-making. Klobuchar, for example, tells me she first decided to run for office in Minnesota in 1995, when a hospital discharged her 24 hours after giving birth to her daughter, Abigail, who had esophageal problems. She showed up to the state capitol with a half-dozen pregnant friends to support a bill mandating a 48-hour postpartum hospital stay. “We outnumbered the insurance lobbyists two to one,” she remembers, “and when the legislators said, ‘When should this bill take effect?’ all the pregnant women said, ‘Now!’ ” The bill later helped influence a federal law, part of the Newborns’ and Mothers’ Health Protection Act of 1996.

As I reported this story, Alabama passed a law that would effectively ban access to abortion. The Democratic candidates were all quick to rebuke the measure and affirm their support for Roe v. Wade. Warren, within two days, rolled out a four-pronged approach to protect abortion rights regardless of who sits on the Supreme Court. “The notion is that women just focus differently,” Warren says. “It is different to have someone in the White House who has been there, who has struggled to get child care, who has been pregnant.” That idea stays with me: A president who knows what it is like to be pregnant. Or who knows what it is like to not want to be pregnant.

The fury over abortion rights came just as Biden entered the race and immediately enjoyed front-runner status. In his campaign-kickoff speech in Philadelphia, the former vice president declared that he would reject anger in the Democratic Party, offering a sunnier, unifying vision. That sentiment, delivered amid real fears about a rollback of abortion rights in Alabama, Georgia, and other states, riled several of Biden’s female opponents.

“I certainly disagree,” Gillibrand says when I call to ask her about Biden’s speech. “I believe that righteous anger is part of who we are as Americans and who we are as women. Righteous anger means standing up for what we believe in, and fighting against hateful rhetoric and misogyny and anti-Semitism and racism and bigotry.”

Like many women, Gillibrand is a preternatural multitasker—and practically still out of breath when she takes my call. It is one of those perfect spring Sundays in New York, 68 degrees, zero humidity, and she’s just finished the AIDS Walk in Central Park. After we discuss righteous anger and misogyny, Gillibrand tells me her husband, Jonathan, and their sons, Theodore and Henry, are meeting her while she campaigns in Iowa to shop for an RV to drive around this summer. “The nice thing about an RV is you have a fridge filled with food!”

THE DAY I MEET Senator Klobuchar for coffee in D.C., she and Harris have just eviscerated Attorney General William P. Barr over his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, 24 hours earlier—and Klobuchar (a former prosecutor, like Harris) still seems pumped. For the first time since she declared her candidacy, cable-news pundits have begun to (temporarily) theorize that the Democrats need that type of polite, female ferocity on a debate stage against Trump.

Klobuchar shrugs when I ask if the political theater of the Barr hearings has brought in campaign donations. She doesn’t know. But she is eager— invigorated, even—to dissect how she interrogates a witness. “I have a habit of asking straightforward questions, and one of the keys is not to pontificate, to ask quickly, but normally, and then let them kind of hang there,” Klobuchar says.

It’s impossible not to be reminded of her exchange with Justice Brett Kavanaugh last fall, the charged back-and-forth in which Klobuchar asked Kavanaugh if he’d ever been blackout drunk (and he peevishly replied, “Have you?”). Many women viewed the exchange as sexist. Klobuchar did not. “He was rude to other senators, so I really didn’t see it that way,” she says. “I just wanted to keep my own credibility and the credibility of our Senate and our justice system.” Soon after, she again found herself in the midst of a debate over the sexist treatment of female politicians. Several tough news stories portrayed the Minnesota senator as an exacting boss who had mistreated her staff, “subjecting them to bouts of explosive rage and regular humiliation,” BuzzFeed News reported. The stories led some women, including members of Klobuchar’s own staff, to argue that the criticism was rooted in gendered stereotypes. Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director on Clinton’s 2016 campaign, wrote in Politico that the same behavior by men would be considered “a badge of honor, not a mark of shame,” and noted the tough treatment of staff by Bill Clinton, Senator Chuck Schumer, and Rahm Emanuel. “We still hold women in American politics to higher standards than men, which puts added pressure on female bosses,” she wrote.

I want to dive into this with Klobuchar, but I’ve heard in advance that she would prefer not to discuss a topic that has already consumed so much of her early presidential campaign. So I save it for my penultimate question: Was the coverage of her managerial style sexist? “You guys can decide that. I’m doing my campaign,” Klobuchar says, and then—Minnesota politely— signals to an aide that it is about time to wrap things up.

THE THING ABOUT ELECTABILITY is that no one is electable until they’re elected. There was, of course, a time when the experts deemed a Catholic, a divorced actor, a black man, and a reality-TV star with a questionable business background unelectable.

Warren, in particular, has, in the months I worked on this story, gone through several election life cycles. She was declared politically dead after an ill-advised DNA test, and then, by sheer grit and the force of her ideas, pulled her way back into the race, calling for Trump’s impeachment, boycotting Fox News, and introducing so many policy plans that, in a viral Twitter moment, she even promised to answer the comedian Ashley Nicole Black’s plea to devise a plan to fix her love life. By the first debate, Warren stood assuredly at center stage, challenging her rivals to shift leftward on issues like health care and breaking up the big tech companies. Pundits agreed that Warren came off as the candidate (not just the woman) to beat. (Well, most of them did. Fox News’s Howie Kurtz tweeted, “Okay, Elizabeth Warren is standing between two very tall guys. Shouldn’t matter but looks odd.” Old habits die hard.) For women candidates so often handicapped by their wonkiness, Warren has managed to own her intellect, adopting the slogan WARREN HAS A PLAN FOR THAT—as if policy prescriptions rather than Twitter insults could be a feasible way to take on Trump. As we go to press, Warren leads the other women in the race in most polls and is ahead of all the male candidates except Biden and (depending on the day) Sanders.

She and I have been talking in her D.C. living room for about 45 minutes when an aide pokes her head out of a study and says, “Senator, conference call. . . .” “Be there in five!” Warren responds. Five, then ten minutes, pass, and, after a couple more pleas from her aide, Warren finally springs up to walk me out. We are in the hall, headed toward the elevators, and she is still making her case for universal child care. (“We need to make this the same way we invest in roads and bridges.”) I know she doesn’t like to talk about the horse race, but I finally ask about her surge in the polls, about whether she thinks she can really win this thing, and Warren just swats the air as if she were shooing her golden retriever Bailey off the sofa. “You know, it is this moment in American history where the foundations of democracy are under attack and democracy is rebuilding, right from the ground up,” Warren says. Then she pushes the down button, concerned that I make my train to relieve the babysitter.

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