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Democrats' Hopes Sink in Gender Gap

The personalities and issues that drew the women's vote in '92 are in eclipse.

January 25, 1998|DAN SCHNUR | Dan Schnur is a Republican political advisor based in Northern California

All in all, it was a bad week for the gender gap. Dianne Feinstein isn't running, Bill Clinton isn't talking and Democrats, who've come to rely on women voters in recent years as the base of their political support, are worrying. As well they should.

Six short years ago, female voters stormed across the political landscape, defining 1992 as the Year of the Woman in California and in national politics. Mobilized by the sexual harassment charges leveled by Anita Hill against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, they provided the margin of victory that sent Bill Clinton to the White House and, in California, two women to the U.S. Senate--Feinstein (to fill the two years remaining in Pete Wilson's term) and Barbara Boxer.

For years, Democrats have maintained a significant advantage in attracting the support of women voters. 1992 was a watershed year because of the number of female candidates on ballots nationwide and because the issues that year helped motivate women to the polls. 1998 is shaping up to be a much different kind of election season for women in politics. The three names that will define this year's campaign season are not Dianne, Barbara and Anita but Monica, Paula and Gennifer.

Clinton's alleged dalliance with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, coupled with an ever-growing number of charges from women accusing him of sexual improprieties, brings the issue of sexual harassment back to the forefront of American politics. The furor that inspired the influx of women voters to the polls in 1992 will have a much different impact when the male politician under the magnifying glass is not a conservative Republican but a Democratic president.

After manning the ramparts against both Thomas and, with more success, former Sen. Bob Packwood, feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women have stayed about as neutral as Switzerland during the debate over Paula Jones' lawsuit against Clinton. Individually, feminist fans of Clinton have ridiculed Jones as "trailer park trash" and dismissed her story as motivated by partisan politics and financial gain. None of these arguments will hold up credibly if leveled against a former White House intern and doctor's daughter from Beverly Hills.

As a result, rank-and-file women voters are likely to be even more conflicted. If anger against the white male establishment inspired the increased female turnout in 1992, the controversy surrounding Clinton will almost certainly provide an equally powerful incentive for women to stay home this time around.

Other political forces that conspired to create the Year of the Woman in 1992 are creating potential problems for the Democrats this year as well. Most notable is Feinstein's decision last week to sit out the California gubernatorial campaign. Feinstein barely won reelection to her Senate seat in 1994 after a bruising campaign against Republican Michael Huffington. Although she was her party's most popular and potentially successful candidate for governor, she feared that this campaign would be even more difficult.

Feinstein's decision leaves the Democrats with a field made up entirely of white male candidates, none of whom possesses the political history or the personal characteristics that can reenergize the women voters who turned out for Feinstein.

Boxer, who was elected in 1992 largely on the strength of Clinton's and Feinstein's coattails, now faces a reelection campaign where neither will be of much help to her--and one is likely to be a hindrance.

Clinton and Feinstein are not the only elements likely to change the dynamics of gender politics this year. In the past, Democrats from Clinton on down have used issues such as abortion rights and education to make their case to women. But the politics of these issues has changed as well.

The abortion issue, which Democratic candidates used with great effectiveness in past elections, has become much more complicated as the debate has shifted to issues of availability, such as parental consent and partial-birth procedures. Education is no longer a Democratic slam-dunk either, as the Republican Congress moves beyond its "shut down the Education Department" sloganeering to serious proposals on school choice, teacher credentials and curriculum reform.

So the gender wars have been rejoined, and the Democrats enter this election year with their most effective warriors on the sidelines. By the time the dust settles in November, Clinton will have finally learned a critical lesson of politics: Hell hath no fury like a voter group scorned.

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