With her latest round of primary wins, Hillary Clinton is all but guaranteed the Democratic nomination. But exit polls in some of the states make clear that to win the Presidency, she may have to find the courage to admit something most women are afraid to.
While a majority of recent Democratic voters deemed Clinton trustworthy, most who ranked honesty as the most important quality in their decision chose Bernie Sanders. Overall, more than half of American voters hold an unfavorable opinion of her. Her favorability numbers are still better than Donald Trump’s, but the question is not really whether a majority of potential American voters will choose him. They won’t. The question is whether enough voters opposing him will turn out – on Election Day and as volunteers beforehand— for her to win.
The even larger question, however, is why so many voters have such strong negative reactions to Hillary Clinton in the first place. After all, many of the same voters who disdain her for being “dishonest” will cheer for her husband. You know the one who actually did lie to all of us. Remember “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”?
For many, the distinction between how the two Clintons are viewed is clear. He’s a man and she’s a woman. We’ve all heard it said that “A woman is called ‘difficult’ for behavior that gets a man hailed as ‘assertive.’” Many see Bill Clinton not so much as a liar as a mischievously rakish leader who was economical with the truth. Hillary, on the other hand, is a lying harpy.
I’m sure that sexism has played a role in how Hillary Clinton is perceived and critiqued by some. Because no woman in the public eye as much as she is or as long as she has been is immune to sexist critiques. But the real difference between Bill and Hillary Clinton is one all of us have faced in life, from junior high on. Bill is simply more likable.
In the same way George W. Bush was seen as more fun and friendly than his more intellectually accomplished and responsible brother Jeb, Bill is preferred by most people with a pulse over his more responsible wife. Every election we hear about the importance of the so-called “beer test,” as in “who do voters want to have a beer with?” Hillary Clinton screams a lot of things, but person you want to chill with in your free time is not one of them. (Which is why President Obama’s backhanded compliment of Clinton as “likable enough” landed like the diss that it was.)
But I believe Hillary Clinton’s real problem is not that her husband is more likable than she is, but that it is obvious that she cares so much — like a lot of women do. Asked during the last debate why so many voters don’t trust her, Clinton replied, plainly but painfully: “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama."
I remember a conversation I had with a female friend just before an important meeting I was supposed to have with a prominent media person. I was nervous because for a variety of reasons I suspected the person I was meeting with might not be a personal fan of mine.
When I finished laying out my concerns my friend – who is significantly more successful than I am – said: “This is the difference between men and women. Why do you care if he likes you or not? You got the meeting because his boss’s boss thinks you’re qualified and if they tell him to work with you, he will.”
This may sound like a fairly unimportant anecdote in the context of a presidential campaign but for some of the women I’ve shared it with over the years it is revolutionary. The reason: because women are taught early on to spend much of our time, energy and social capital pleasing others. Boys are taught to be smart. Girls are taught to be smart—but not at the expense of being popular, and certainly not at the expense of being pretty.
Because after all, accomplishments ultimately mean very little in the big scheme of things if when it’s all said and done you’re a woman who is perceived as unattractive, unlovable and unlikable.
Hillary Clinton, the candidate voters don’t trust, was deemed the most trustworthy presidential candidate on terror following the Paris attacks in November. That’s not the same as being loved or liked, but it does indicate that plenty of Americans know that the job of president is too serious to decide the way we decide who we want to sit with in the cafeteria in high school.
Instead of trying desperately to generate laughs on “Saturday Night Live” or “Broad City” or wherever else her team of advisors tell her is essential to making her likable enough to win, she should say something most of us would never have the courage to say but wish that we did:
“I know I’m not what a lot of you would call likable. But I’m really qualified and for a job this serious, that’s what should matter. After all, do you care whether your accountant is likable?”