I wrote Part I of this blog post in late 1984. In Part I, I commented on the campaign for president and vice president that had occurred that fall.
Part II, also written in 1984, offered my thoughts at the time about what might take place post-1984.
During the past 32 years, we’ve seen another major political party nominate a woman to be vice president. In my view, the selection of Sarah Palin as that candidate in 2008 was John McCain’s replication of Walter Mondale’s unhappy selection of Geraldine Ferraro. It was perhaps even more detrimental to McCain because he probably had a better chance of being elected president than Mondale had in 1984. Palin was even more untested as a political figure than Ferraro, having served only as a suburban mayor and a recently elected governor of a small state. She soon demonstrated her lack of experience and knowledge of national issues, making her a genuine liability for McCain, who lost the support of many voters who might have otherwise been inclined to vote for him.
In 2016, American voters finally have the opportunity to select a woman as their president. This time she’s a woman with a great deal of experience in public life and vast knowledge of the issues confronting our nation. Although, as a candidate, Hillary Clinton hasn’t inspired unbridled enthusiasm, she’s as close to a “woman candidate of national stature” (to use my own words) as we’ve ever had. In 1984, I predicted that a “woman candidate of national stature” whose position “represents the majority thinking in this country” would be “a realistic candidate,…and she will win.”
Was I right?
Here’s exactly what I wrote in 1984:
How does this leave things for the future? Putting aside the personal future of Geraldine Ferraro, which is probably bright, what about other women candidates? And what about the possibility of any woman being nominated and elected to the presidency or vice presidency of this country? The Mondale-Ferraro defeat should not and must not be read as a defeat for women candidates in general. Ferraro’s assets, both as a candidate and as a human being, are considerable, but, to be honest, she joined the campaign largely unknown and untested.
Another woman candidate might well fare otherwise.
Twenty-five years ago [i.e., in 1959], Margaret Chase Smith, a well-known and respected Republican U.S. Senator from Maine, announced her candidacy for the presidency. She never had a realistic shot at it in that benighted era, but she might have had one in the 1980s. She had established herself through a number of terms in the House of Representatives and the Senate, had climbed up the ladder in the Senate to committee chairmanships, and had become a recognized and admired figure on the national political scene. A woman presenting similar credentials in the 1980s would bring a credibility to a national ticket that Ferraro, as a relative newcomer to the political arena, could not. For this reason it’s important that women continue to run for political office on the state and local level, building political careers that will lead to the White House after they have achieved national stature—not before.
In all of the fuss made over Ferraro’s candidacy, something important was forgotten. It’s not desirable for any political party to nominate a candidate solely or even primarily because that candidate is a woman or a black or a Hispanic—or a white Anglo male, for that matter. The selection process must be based on the totality of what any given candidate will bring to the office. The Democrats were wrong to select a woman candidate largely because she was a woman (those who said that a man with Ferraro’s credentials would never have been considered were—however painful it is to admit—correct). They were wrong because Americans do not, and should not, vote for “symbols.” When it became clear that Jesse Jackson wasn’t a candidate with a broad-based constituency but had become a “black” candidate and nothing more, that was the death knell for any realistic chance he had of winning the nomination. But saying that is not saying that no black candidate can ever win.
Women candidates and candidates who are members of minority groups have run for office and won broad-based electoral support where they have been viewed as representing the best interests of a majority of the electorate. But women and others who are viewed as “symbols,” representing only that segment of the electorate from which they came, will never win that sort of broad-based support. On the contrary, their candidacies may serve only to polarize voters, leading to strife and bitterness among the electorate, and probable if not certain defeat at the ballot box.
When Mondale chose Ferraro, he already had the votes of the politically aware women for whom Ferraro became a symbol by virtue of his position on such issues as the ERA [the Equal Rights Amendment] and [the issue of] comparable worth. He would not have lost the votes of those women no matter what else he did. Likewise, Reagan didn’t have the votes of those women and wouldn’t have had them no matter what he did. Even in the unimaginable event that Reagan had selected a woman running-mate, she would have had to be a woman whose thinking was compatible with his, and if she had endorsed Reagan’s views on the ERA (á la Phyllis Schlafly), feminists wouldn’t have been any more likely to vote for Reagan-Schlafly than Reagan-Bush. It shouldn’t therefore be terribly difficult to understand why women who were otherwise happy with Reagan weren’t inclined to switch to Mondale simply because of Ferraro.
In sum, women voters are really not very different from men voters, and Democratic strategists who thought otherwise were proved wrong in 1984. Women vote their interests, and these do not necessarily coincide with what is popularly perceived as “women’s” interests. Women, like men, are concerned about the economy, our country’s status in the world, and a host of other matters along with the particular concerns they may have as women.
When a woman candidate of national stature emerges whose position on these interests represents the majority thinking in the country, she will be a realistic candidate for the vice presidency or the presidency, and she will win.