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Election Offers a New 'Showdown at Gender Gap'

May 26, 1996|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His new book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustrations of American Politics" (Little Brown)

WASHINGTON — The full explanation of why women, in such droves, plan to support the reelection of the first U.S. president alleged (in his previous position) to have sexually harassed a female worker is probably best left to Oprah and the shrinks. But this is just one fascinating nuance of why November's presidential election promises to be another episode in the continuing late-20th-century mega-series "Showdown at Gender Gap." Here are the opening-round gender ratings: President Bill Clinton, heavily favored among women, relatively distrusted by men, leads by 15-20 points overall. GOP challenger Bob Dole, true to conservatism's current electoral profile, does better with men--but trails slightly among them, too. Presumed Reform Party nominee Ross Perot also does better with men; feisty populists generally do--a major reason GOP strategists hope Perot won't run. They can't afford to split the AWM (angry white male) vote while Clinton sweeps the SHFs (soft-hearted females).

All right, nobody really uses this terminology--at least not yet. But it's as good a way as any to approach this era's presidential election, given gender's emerging political importance during the last decade and a half.

Consider: Ronald Reagan won his two elections, 1980 and 1984, with majorities weighted toward men. Not for nothing was the former California governor a strong, self-assured former star of Westerns and the TV series "Death Valley Days." In addition, the issues he emphasized included rebuilding U.S. defense, cracking down on crime and toughening U.S. foreign policy after the feckless Jimmy Carter--who was un-macho enough to say he had been attacked by a "killer rabbit." True, Reagan put women off a bit by his jokes about "welfare queens" and cutting social programs, but they sensed he was more talk than action. Overall, the problems in the United States from the late 1970s through late '80s focused on male-dominated issues. Men favored GOP presidents while women were closely divided.

George Bush proved the point. Despite the joke that he reminded every divorcee of her first husband, he broke even among women in 1988 and carried the male vote easily against Democrat Michael S. Dukakis. Though Dukakis was never attacked by a rabbit, the Massachusetts governor displayed his own reverse macho by fumbling a question from a TV interviewer on whether he'd be willing to execute someone who had raped his wife. Four years later, however, Bush himself faced ambush at Gender Gap.

In 1992, swing female voters thought Bush was phony on abortion, insensitive to the recession and revealingly unskilled with respect to supermarket check-out counters. They opted for Clinton. Men, in turn, thought Bush wimped out on taxes and bungled the Gulf War by letting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein survive. Cars in employment-devastated New Hampshire sported cynical bumper stickers saying, "Saddam Hussein Still Has His Job: How About You?" Many disgusted male Republicans switched to Perot, who talked about fixing problems "by getting under the hood" and could strut sitting down.

This year, of course, gender gap is again shaping up as a major battleground. Clinton now enjoys huge (20-25 point) leads among women in most polls. No previous president has been able to build anything like it--though John F. Kennedy might have in 1964. The obvious keys to Clinton's appeal are: his belated, but effective willingness to veto the GOP's 1995 budgetary attacks on Medicare, Medicaid, education and other safety-net programs; and his willingness to veto GOP efforts to restrict or even prohibit women's rights to have an abortion. Thus, though women are aware of Clinton's questionable personal behavior toward their sex--Gennifer Flowers and Paula Corbin Jones, his harassment accuser, have at least that threshold credibility--they prefer to think in terms of his larger public-policy morality.

That's the high falutin' explanation, at least. What also seems arguable is that Clinton, a.k.a. the Ozark Casanova, seems to have a way with females that transcends public-policy explanations. Kennedy seemed to have the same quality. Whatever it is, musk or middle-of-the-road macho, it's probably a significant factor in the 1996 women's vote.

It's arguably also a factor in men's negativism toward Clinton as a draft-dodgin', fast-talkin' slickster who gets the girls while the other guys get PFC stripes and dead-end jobs. That's not very statisticizable, either, of course.

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