Hillary Clinton's gender tightrope

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton could be helped by an improving climate for women in politics
  • Republicans hope the gender play backfires and that voters are fatigued by identity politics
  • The emphasis on women as a possible campaign theme is a reversal of her 2008 strategy

Washington (CNN)It's the mistake that Hillary Clinton won't make again: ignoring her gender.

The low-key video she released on Sunday announcing her run for the White House is filled with women -- young, old, black, white, Asian and Latina -- working in their gardens, taking care of their kids and getting ready for life in the working world.
Clinton, who made herself the center of her campaign announcement in 2007, is barely in the video at all, appearing at the end as a kind of everywoman whose story and fight could be folded in with all the others.
    "I'm getting ready to do something, too. I'm running for president," Clinton said in the video. "Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion -- so you can do more than just get by -- you can get ahead."
    Clinton often says there's no better time in history to be born female than the present. She's now betting that there is no better time for her to make history as the nation's first woman president.
    The challenge for Clinton in breaking the "highest, hardest glass ceiling" that she described in 2008 is laying out a precise campaign vision that connects with all voters, while generating excitement and anticipation over the possibility of making history.

    'Leaning in'

    Clinton could be helped by an improving climate for women in politics.
    There are historic numbers of women in Congress, and the idea of "leaning in" is a catch phrase among professional women. Meanwhile, the feminism label doesn't seem as charged as it once was -- people from Beyonce to actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt are identifying as feminist.
    "As far as the political culture and culture in general, this is as good a time as any for a women to run for the highest office. There is a willingness now to promote pro-women messages," said Jennifer Lawless, who runs the Women & Politics Institute at American University. "People are ready for a woman president. The question is this: Are they ready for Hillary as that woman?"
    According to a recent Pew poll, nearly three quarters of Americans expect to see a woman president in their lifetime. But that hope splits along partisan -- not gender -- lines. Only 20% of Republican women hope to see a woman president and nearly 70% of Democratic women do.
    In the run-up to her announcement and at women-centered events, Clinton sometimes strode on stage to the song "I'm Every Woman," and recalled how she juggled work and motherhood as a young lawyer. She has acknowledged a double standard for women and advised women to be tough.
    She has also frequently mentioned her granddaughter, Charlotte, as the reason she wants to remain in public life, a theme that will no doubt be heard on the campaign trail as she kicks off a tour in Iowa this week with small events. She made pushing for the expansion of the rights of women and girls part of her diplomatic work as secretary of state, as detailed in her book "Hard Choices."
    Her new campaign website is plastered with pictures of women, with Clinton, in a blue cloth coat, holding a cup of coffee listening intently to another woman as a man looks on.
    The emphasis on women -- and the progress of women -- as a possible underlying campaign theme is a reversal of her 2008 strategy, which stressed experience and competence over history. But the problem with that approach was that avoiding the obvious wasn't possible and didn't make for good politics.

    Gender card

    "She is the gender card. She doesn't need to play it because she embodies it. She is the woman candidate. She has shared women's experiences. Being a mom and a grandmother," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "She will just naturally bring it in. If she overplayed it, which she won't, it could backfire."
    Republicans certainly hope the gender play backfires and that voters are fatigued by the kind of identity politics that have defined the Obama years. The Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association's president, put it this way at the group's recent annual meeting: "Eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough."
    Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn acknowledged that many women would like to see a female president in their lifetime but said she didn't think it would be Clinton.
    "There's a couple of things there. Trust, honesty -- those get in her way," Blackburn said. "As we talk about the polling that is out there, that gets in Hillary's way and she's not authentic."
    In 2014, Democratic candidates such as former Colorado Sen. Mark Udall proved that the "war on women" style of campaigning that worked so well in 2012 had reached its limits. Udall lost that race and picked up the nickname "Mark Uterus" along the way for his incessant focus on women's issues.
    And Democrats found that in states such as Texas, Kentucky and Georgia, white married women and white working class women tended to prefer Republicans.
    Katie Packer Gage, who has been talking to women in focus groups about Clinton's run, said that to many women, the "idea of Hillary is more popular than the reality."

    'A typical politician'

    "She starts out having some benefits of gender because she is something different, but then starts to feel like a typical politician and gets back down to earth," said Packer Gage, who runs Burning Glass Consulting, a firm that coaches Republicans on appealing to women voters. "You do see her starting to frame her campaign as a campaign for women, but that's a narrow campaign, not a winning campaign. You aren't going to win 100% of women."
    Among Republicans, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina might mount a challenge to Clinton and try to neutralize some of the former first lady's strengths as the lone woman in a field dominated by men.
    Fiorina released a Facebook video Sunday in which she said Clinton was a "highly intelligent woman" but doesn't have a track record of accomplishment or trustworthiness.
    "She's not the woman for the White House," Fiorina said.
    And among Democrats, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb could jump in and be the champion for the white working man, a demographic that he has said is left out of the Democrat's increasingly diverse tent. Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul, who launched his presidential campaign last week, has noted that the Clinton Foundation took money from foreign countries who oppress women, suggesting that the pro-woman framing won't be an easy sell.
    But Clinton will have some high-profile champions.
    Moments after her announcement, top Democrats rolled out endorsements, including Barbara Mikulski, the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right.
    "Whoopee, Hillary is off and running," she wrote in a statement. "I'm ready for Hillary. And America is ready for Hillary. She is going to break that glass ceiling once and for all."
    At a recent EMILY's List event before announcing her run, Clinton asked her supporters: "Don't you someday want to see a woman president?"
    In that particular crowd the answering was a resounding yes.
    But it's unlikely that the same question will make it in her campaign speeches. After all, the answer across the country is much more complicated.