This weekend Maureen Dowd wrote a typically spirited column about Sarah Palin that ended up being a sly sideways dig at Hillary Clinton. “Sarah Palin Saves Feminism” is a title that’s sure to provoke, and the column did: Sarah Palin is such a mess, Dowd’s thesis went, that she negates all the hype around Clinton’s chance for a historic victory, a first female president. “Hillary Clinton is presenting herself as the embodiment of women, an American Marianne, pushing her gender in an all-for-one-one-for-all, now-or-never way,” writes Dowd, who goes on to suggest that Clinton is arguing that “Women should support her because if she founders, it will be bad for women. But Palin has done us a favor by proving that a woman can stumble, babble incoherently on stage and spew snide garbage, and it isn’t a blot on the female copybook.”
Dowd’s one-note joke is mildly funny, but also irrelevant; even SNL knows there’s a big difference between Clinton’s and Palin’s versions of what female leadership would look like. Yet with Palin back on the national stage and would-be frontrunner Clinton facing an insurgency from a grassroots candidate who she previously discounted, there’s a lot about 2016 that looks like 2008, and the media will grab onto that narrative and hold fast.
That’s something to be wary of. Tina Fey is back on SNL, doing her fabled Palin impression, while Dowd’s — and the rest of the mainstream media’s — obsession with Hillary’s gender presentation, from her pantsuits to her tone of voice, is also creeping back. It’s a tired old playbook, but it delights election watchers, particularly those obsessed with the “horse race” and candidates’ “images.” In 2008, Dowd thought Clinton, who emphasized her hawkish credentials, was running too “masculine” a campaign. Now, she finds herself equally disgusted that Hillary is embracing feminism (which many felt she should have done far earlier in 2008). Rather than acknowledge this internal contradiction, Dowd flips it and blames Clinton: “After running as a man last time around, Hillary Clinton is now running as a woman,” she wrote in another recent column, attributing her theory to Matthew Dowd (no relation) , a strategist for George W. Bush. “She should have run as a woman in 2008, when she was beating back a feminized antiwar candidate. And she should have run as a man this time, when Americans feel beleaguered and scared.”
OK, then. Maureen Dowd is known for using elementary gender stereotypes in her analysis. Democratic men are “feminized” (she used to call Obama “Obambi” and went after Al Gore and John Edwards with similar complaints) and Republican men are locked in Shakespearean battles with their dads, while women like Clinton are often portrayed in her writing as too masculine and threatening. She throws around dated and retrograde stereotypes as though she’s being ironic and postmodern, but in fact the points she hammers home are rather, well, basic.
Media Matters studied Dowd’s Clinton-related columns over a period of more than two decades (that’s over 200 columns) and crunched the numbers to show just how obsessed Dowd is with the Clintons and gender:
- 159 columns (75%) were negative
- 53 columns (25%) were neutral or positive
- 61 columns (29%) have accused Clinton of being power hungry
- 37 columns (17%) accused Clinton of betraying feminism
- 15 columns (7%) said Clinton was not likable
- 47 columns (22%) characterized Clinton as a phony
- 44 columns (21%) performed psychoanalysis of the Clinton marriage