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Confessions of a slow learner: American politics really is sexist

Think of this as a column for slow learners, written from the perspective of a slow learner. Our ranks are large, and obviously include Bloomberg but I suspect also, to varying degrees, the other male candidates. I am not actually that clueless. Rest assured that I am not just now acquainting myself with the notion…

Think of this as a column for slow learners, written from the perspective of a slow learner. Our ranks are large, and obviously include Bloomberg but I suspect also, to varying degrees, the other male candidates.

I am not actually that clueless. Rest assured that I am not just now acquainting myself with the notion that politics—like wide swaths of American professional culture, including media—is shadowed by sexism. I have sources and friends who have written books on the subject.

My revelation is not about the historic reality of gender prejudice but about its durability.

Before I covered national politics, I covered state politics in Virginia. In the past three presidential cycles the state has gone Democratic but in those days, the 1990s, it had voted Republican at the presidential level since 1964. Democrats could win statewide office but only if they presented themselves as practical-minded moderates who didn’t offend Old Dominion sensibilities.

One person who seemed especially adept at this was a Democrat named Mary Sue Terry. She had twice won big in statewide races for attorney general. In 1993, she started her race for governor as an early and commanding favorite. She had a solid record, a conscientious work ethic, an impressive fundraising network and the backing of all manner of respectable establishment figures.

Her biggest obstacle, it seemed to me and many others, was her public persona—painfully cautious, almost purposefully dull. This was not how I experienced her in private settings, in which she was an interesting and engaging presence.

I once asked her what explained the gulf—why was she so restrained and opaque and downright uncomfortable in public? She looked at me incredulously and asked me to put down my notebook. A quarter-century later I will paraphrase but not quote: Do you honestly have no idea how difficult it is for a woman in public life?

The answer was no, I honestly did not buy it. The year before, 1992, was in national politics “the year of the women,” when five female candidates were elected to the Senate—a record at the time. And Terry herself had already knocked down the gender barrier. If she lost the governorship because she couldn’t get voters to connect with her leadership style, it seemed to me then, this had nothing to do with gender. As it happened, Terry did lose handily to Republican George Allen, whose folksy, towel-snapping style gave him 58 percent of the vote.

With the passage of time, I’ve wondered whether Terry was explaining something more elemental than I realized. To state the obvious, we have not yet elected a woman as president. It occurred to me just the other day something less obvious: Since 1989, when Terry won re-election as attorney general, there have been 31 state and federal elections to hold statewide offices representing Virginia, all at a time when the state has been trending steadily more progressive. The number of those elections won by women has been precisely zero.

This year’s Democratic presidential contest offers reason to wonder anew. Warren’s decline in the polls in late summer and fall of last year coincided with media coverage designating her frontrunner. Much of the coverage of her debate performances (including some of my own, in a fashion not too different than my old stories on Terry) puzzled on the variance between moments when she seemed “commanding” or seemed to recede and saw her percentage of speaking time diminish. Jennifer Palmieri, an adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2016, wrote in her post-campaign book “Dear Madam President” about how the Clinton team grappled with the way some voters are turned off by ambitious women.

After the most recent debate, when Klobuchar was grilled over not knowing the name of the Mexican president, the split in post-debate chatter was a Rorschach test: Some thought former Mayor Pete Buttigieg had skillfully exploited her lapse, others thought he was smug and patronizing. Kloubchar was in that latter camp: “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?”

At a minimum it is notable that we are still talking about gender. There are some bridges in politics and broader society that get crossed and somehow stay crossed. Twenty years ago, Joe Lieberman’s status as a Jewish person on the national Democratic ticket was covered and talked about as a big deal. This year the fact that Bernie Sanders and Bloomberg are Jews attracts scant interest. The same with the fact that Bloomberg is unmarried and lives with his long-term companion, and that he, Sanders and Warren, like Donald Trump, have been divorced—a status that until 1980 was regarded as a severe liability in presidential politics. We don’t know for sure how Buttigieg’s same-sex marriage would play in a general election, but in the Democratic contest it has been a fund-raising and reputational asset; He’s usually the one who brings the subject up rather than other people.

One reason gender prejudice in politics is hard to grapple with is that the insidious nature of double standards can never be isolated as the sole factor, or even the primary factor, behind a candidate’s success or failure. Klobuchar is most of the things many establishment Democrats say they are yearning for: smart, centrist, experienced, with a proven record of winning. She’s running behind Buttigieg, who is smart, centrist, but not as experienced or a proven winner. On the other hand, Klobuchar has done a lot better than fellow Sen. Michael Bennet, who checked most of the same the boxes she did. Who’s to say what role gender played?

That’s why Bloomberg’s debate performance offered a useful window on the question. His words, tone, and body language made it pretty easy to guess his thought bubble: Give me a break, I am not sexist and these critics don’t really think I am—they are just saying that to score political points.

There’s no evidence that Bloomberg is a Harvey Weinstein type. Upon reflecting after last week’s debate, he reversed himself and said he’d be happy to waive non-disclosure agreements from women who sued his company, Bloomberg Media, over sex-related discrimination.

Warren skewered him, as have opponents in previous elections, on quotations attributed to him in a booklet called “The Portable Bloomberg,” presented to him as an affectionate gift by co-workers on his 48th birthday. She said it reveals a “billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians.” The booklet quotes Bloomberg as saying the financial data terminals sold by the company, “will do everything including give you a blow job. I guess that puts a lot of you girls out of business.”

Here’s a test. Imagine that the Portable Bloomberg had contained equivalent lines resting on racial stereotypes, or religion. Then ask yourself whether a candidate could successfully brush aside controversy by saying, as Bloomberg did last week, “maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.”

The answer may explain why our politics is still stuck in a gender rut.

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