Bill O'Reilly's segment from last Wednesday — the one in which he asks Kirsten Powers and Kate Obenshain to expound on some mysterious quality that makes women somehow less qualified than men to be president — has to be the most awkward moment of television since…oh I don't know, a few months ago on another Fox News show.
I sympathize with the urge to respond to the clip with mockery. But sometimes a glimmer of truth can be found even in the tawdriest of settings — and it's Powers who deserves credit for uttering it here. Wracking her brain for something to say in response to O'Reilly's flippantly sexist provocation, Powers volunteers that a female president might be more easily goaded than a male president into military muscle-flexing as a way of demonstrating her toughness. Her example is support for the Iraq War, which is an obvious dig at Hillary Clinton.
I like this comment not only because it undercuts O'Reilly's smarmy insinuation that a woman would be too weak to stand toe-t-toe with macho tough guys like Vladimir Putin. I also like it because it may well be true.
Not necessarily about Hillary Clinton and Iraq. There were an awful lot of pro-war Democrats in Washington back in 2003, and Clinton genuinely seems to be a hawk — perhaps more so than her husband — for reasons that have nothing to do with gender.
And yet, there are few more enduring patterns in American politics than efforts by Republicans to portray Democrats as insufficiently tough. And sometimes those efforts inspire acts of foolish overcompensation. The most horrifying example is, of course, the Vietnam War — begun by one Democrat and vastly escalated by another (who also happens to be our worst modern president) in significant part out of fear that they'd be attacked by the right for failing to fight the Commies with sufficient vigor.
Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — the right denounced all of them as wimps at one time or another. While none of them ended up with the blood of 58,000 soldiers on his hands in an effort to prove it wasn't true, I do wonder whether Obama's pointless first-term Afghanistan troop "surge" was motivated to a significant extent by fear of being tarred as a dove in the run-up to re-election.
Would the GOP be less inclined to accuse a female president of weakness? I suppose it's possible, if the Democrats manage to persuade the media (and its donor base) to view "the Hillary wimp factor" as yet another front in the Republicans' ongoing "war on women."
But it's also possible that the sexist stereotypes that continue to linger in our culture will do the work for the GOP without anyone in the party having to say a thing — especially if the first female president bobbles a foreign policy crisis in her first term.
Would the urge to disprove the sexists inspire this president into a Johnson-like act of overcompensation? Of course it's impossible to say — both because we can't know the circumstances ahead of time and because there are always multiple motives in any such executive decision.
What we can know, from studying past presidential decisions (and without having to give too much credence to the funhouse hyper-Machiavellianism that drives the action in House of Cards), is that such self-interested political considerations are always a part of the equation — and that they play a bigger role when the president feels politically vulnerable on a particular issue.
Would a President Hillary Clinton facing re-election in a climate of resurgent sexism surrounding a foreign policy blunder be more inclined than a male president in the same situation to seek to neutralize the problem by opting for a show of decisive military force somewhere in the world?
She just might.
And that's worth pondering as we prepare for Clinton's inevitable presidential run.