Beto O’Rourke jumped into the Democratic presidential primary on Thursday sounding like he hasn’t heard much about the big debate in recent years over how we judge male and female leaders.
Just before he announced his run, O’Rourke boasted to Vanity Fair that “I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it.”
NBC reporter Kasie Hunt spotted the inherent double standard the comment represents: Men are rewarded in politics for showing ambition, while women are punished.
Hunt’s point is well-supported. One prominent study found that people are less likely to vote for a woman if they see her as “power-seeking,” while male politicians pay no price for similar behavior. The same study found that power-seeking female politicians induced “feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust)” among male and female voters. The shorthand for all this — ambition — is a celebrated trait in men. But both men and women don’t like ambitious women.
It’s certainly not O’Rourke’s fault that these attitudes exist. But it is his choice to play to them, rather than to challenge them.
O’Rourke represents one of two competing visions for how Democrats want to take on President Trump in 2020. On one side are those who fear a female candidate will face the same challenge with white men as Hillary Clinton. As Ron Brownstein found in the Atlantic, “[Trump] beat her by nearly 50 points among blue-collar white men.” That margin gave Trump an edge in Midwestern states and carried him to an Electoral College victory. Despite big cultural conversations about how to think about abuse of power, now is not the moment, they argue, to attempt to redefine entrenched ideas about what leadership should look like. The priority should be to beat Trump.
At the same time, another camp doesn’t see these two goals in conflict. Women were crucial to Democrats retaking the House in 2018. They’ve fueled a sustained resistance to the Trump administration. They’re a key voting bloc. Their influence is surging. Democrats have a chance to set up a clear contrast to Trump in running a woman who presents a new vision for leadership. Even running a male candidate who rejects the old notions of male leadership, they argue, could actually help defeat Trump.
As Democrats grapple with what leadership in the party should look like against the backdrop of Trump, O’Rourke’s initial presentation looks retrograde. But the real test will be how he runs against the Democratic women he’s up against.
O’Rourke is a throwback
After serving three terms in the House, O’Rourke burst onto the national political scene with his Senate run in 2018, raising big money from liberals for daring to run against archconservative Ted Cruz as an unapologetic liberal on issues like climate change. He argued that Democrats didn’t have to compromise to succeed in red states like Texas to win.
Then he lost.
His next act was a three-month road trip to clear his head, find adventure, and get out of a “funk.” As he journaled on Medium and posted videos of his journey, his wife stayed behind to work and take care of their children.
He began is self-enrichment tour with a rambling post about taking a break to better himself:
Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk. My last day of work was January 2nd. It’s been more than twenty years since I was last not working. Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.
CNN’s political correspondent Nia-Malika Henderson wrote a piece describing the tour under the headline “Beto’s excellent adventure drips with white male privilege.”
After he announced on Thursday, O’Rourke made another comment about parenting responsibilities that struck a nerve. Matt Viser of the Washington Post reported Thursday that Beto talked about his wife, Amy: “She is raising, sometimes with my help,” their three kids.
On specific policies around women’s health and women’s rights, O’Rourke takes liberal positions. He supports abortion rights, he voted to renew the Violence Against Women Act, and he’s backed increasing funding for domestic violence assistance. He’s received endorsements from women’s advocacy groups.
Democrats really want to beat Trump
Based on how the debate has played out for the past two and a half years, it’s likely that the 2016 election will be dissected for years to come. The combination of Clinton’s history, Russian interference, a letter from then-FBI Director James Comey, emails, the rise of global right-wing populism, the first reality star candidate, and the first female presidential candidate muddy the waters.
Nonetheless, it is true that Clinton lost white, blue-collar men to Trump — by a lot. It’s reasonable to want to get some of these voters. And to some Democrats, a woman is a risky bet against Trump, in particular.
But it’s also worth noting that the demographic story of 2016 isn’t just about white men.
- Trump’s coup among whites was polarized by education level: He picked up 62 percent of all white men and 52 percent of all white women. But among white men without a college degree, he won a staggering 71 percent. Among white women without a college degree, he won 61 percent.
- Clinton, meanwhile, performed best among white college-educated women, doing slightly better than Barack Obama.
- She performed less well than Obama among every other group, even black women, a key Democratic voting bloc. She performed, overall, less well with minority voters.
This isn’t a clean picture for any Democratic candidate. But it does suggest that there isn’t just one strategy to beat Trump, necessarily. There is pickup opportunity with white men, but also with every minority group, including black women.
O’Rourke has a choice
The debate around how to defeat Trump has been largely about whether it’s better to run a man or a woman. But there’s more to it than gender. The question is about what Democrats expect from leaders.
O’Rourke can’t single-handedly change how Americans think about women and ambition. But he also doesn’t have to amplify the status quo in how he runs his campaign. He doesn’t have to talk about ambition as his right. Instead of making a slightly self-deprecating joke about leaving the parenting to his wife (while still being seen as a likable and decent person), he could try to address the underlying topic in an earnest and real way.
And as he gets into the race, he’ll have to decide how he challenges his female peers. Will he perpetuate stereotypes that hold women back? Or will he face them on issues and policy?
Even before several female Democratic candidates got into the race, they were the target of the same attack Clinton endured for years — that she’s only out for herself. And the attacks were coming from inside their own tent. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been accused of pressuring Sen. Al Franken to resign over allegations of sexual misconduct as a personal play. Sen. Kamala Harris was targeted by a Twitter campaign that started as a policy critique but took personal turns into her supposed secret motivations. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has faced criticism for how she supposedly treats her staff. While some of it was truly bad boss behavior, the critiques were rooted in the idea that she put herself and her ambition first.
If these old sexist lines continue, Democrats could leave a mark on their field of female stars heading into 2020. What does O’Rourke plan to do?
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