A Simple 3-Question Test for Republicans Who Want to Run Against Hillary and Win

A 101 for how to avoid stirring up girl trouble in politics.
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EMILY's List continued its "Madam President" roll-out last week, holding a forum in Iowa as part of laying the groundwork for an eventual run by Hillary Clinton or another high-profile Democratic woman in 2016. Meanwhile, in what felt like a totally predictable development, a liberal super PAC is already fundraising by attacking a conservative PAC organized to block the woman who will easily be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, should she run.

American Bridge 21st Century PAC on Monday sent out an appeal from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, that laid out the accusation:

The Hillary Haters are at it again ... and the Republican National Committee has nothing to say about it.

The rabid right wing is so scared of a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2016 that they're already doing everything they can to sink her sky high popularity. That, we expected. What didn't we expect?

Slapping.

Last week The Hillary Project, a leading conservative group determined to smear the former Secretary of State, promoted an online video game prompting people to violently slap Hillary Clinton.

In case you missed this exciting development in political messaging, the online "Slap Hillary" game from The Hillary Project PAC is just as pointless and offensive as advertised. By day's end, the Republican National Committee had predictably distanced itself from the project. "Clearly any game encouraging people to slap anyone is in poor taste. It was when the Democrats used Sarah Palin as the target and it is now with Hillary Clinton," RNC press secretary Kirsten Kukowski told ABC News.  

You could easily dismiss this as a minor skirmish in advance of an envisioned major political war -- you know, the sort of thing that fills a news vacuum on a slow August Monday. But just imagine the conflagration that would have broken out if a similar PAC effort were launched in the winter of 2015, when people were paying closer attention. The outrage machine on both sides would have gone into overdrive, in a way that would be bad for Republicans (who'd be tarred as sexist), bad for Democrats (who'd be tarred as thin-skinned or playing the gender card), and, worst of all, bad for women in politics, drowning out their messages with freak-show commentary on whether some dweeb on the Internet takes satisfaction from the smacking sound a trollish game makes when a female politician's head is knocked to the side. The whole controversy would be pointless, toxic, and unhelpful, except to the extent that the specter of violence against women could be used to score political points and gin up Republican or Democratic base voters.

The thing is, the GOP does not need this. Everyone who is going to be motivated to vote Republican by hatred for Clinton, whether it be the sound of her voice or the cut of her pants or her policy-making attempts while in the Clinton White House or the fact that she is still with Bill, will be motivated against her by the very fact of her running. There will be no need for additional piling on to get those voters to turn out, and there is certainly no need for it now, before she has even declared.

Meanwhile, the GOP -- which is actively trying to recruit women candidates for 2014 and also highlight its up-and-coming women leaders already in office -- will need to fight against Clinton's appeal to single women, should she run. It will need to draw out suburban women in key Southern states especially. It would be helped in that effort if it were not held responsible for every sexist and stupid thing some random Republican super PAC does. But since we all know it will be, and since these fights over sexism in politics really and truly help no one, it might be worthwhile at this early point in the cycle for Republicans in a position of leadership to preemptively discourage political efforts that cause women to see in the attack on a Democratic leader an attitude they recognize from their own work or personal lives as destructive and diminishing.
 
To this end, here's a simple stress-test against which messaging can be measured -- three questions that political actors seeking to avoid stupid controversies over sexism should ask themselves:

  1. Can the ad, statement, website, or what have you be seen as encouraging violence against women or perceived as showing a lack of concern for the well-being of female victims of violent crime?
  2. Is it physically derogatory, overtly sexual, or obscene?
  3. Does it suggest the candidate has failed at being a woman in some way -- too many kids or too few, too concerned with appearance or not concerned enough, etc. etc.?

If an ad or statement does any of these three things, the potential for the originating speaker, PAC, candidate, or committee to step into a pointless political conflagration on the topic of gender is high.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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