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Are Democrats brave enough to run a woman against Donald Trump?

Liberals can’t decide how to deal with Trump in the era of #MeToo.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016.
Paul Sancya/AP

Democrats agree that Donald Trump’s history of bragging about groping and assaulting women is unacceptable, but they don’t agree about how to deal with it in 2020.

The tension has spilled into the open in the ongoing debate about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s role in galvanizing Senate Democrats to call for Sen. Al Franken to step down over misconduct. Even white college-educated women, Hillary Clinton’s biggest supporters, are divided.

“We loved him,” Marsha Pearcy, 58, said sadly to Gillibrand at a private event for professional women in Washington on Tuesday night. Pearcy had barely finished saying Franken’s name when quiet murmurs and palpable tension spread across the room of dozens of mostly white and mostly 20- and 30-something women.

Gillibrand speaking on sexual harassment on Capitol Hill in December 2017. She and fellow female Democratic senators united in calling for Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) to resign amid sexual misconduct allegations.
Andrew Harnik/AP

At its core, the Franken controversy is about how Democrats believe their party should respond to #MeToo as they prepare to take on Trump in 2020. One faction wants to battle Trump on his turf, even if it means giving one of their own a pass on sexual misconduct. Trump doesn’t apologize for even worse. Why should Democrats? Ideals be damned; there’s too much at stake.

Another faction believes Democrats must do better — that they need to stand with women and clean house no matter who the offender is, even a popular liberal senator. These liberals think the future of the party is rooted in the women-led resistance and the energy that’s driven a record number of women to run for Democratic office this year.

At the closed Washington event, Gillibrand took in Pearcy’s comments and the mood of the room. “The challenge for me personally was [Franken] had eight allegations against him, seven of them credible,” she said.

She described how she’d worked on sexual assault issues for years, including taking on top brass from her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee for how they handle cases in the military. How could she give Franken a pass just because he’s her friend? “My silence was unacceptable.”

“The eighth [woman] happened to be a House staffer,” Gillibrand went on. “If I can’t stand up for someone who works in my own place of business, who can I?”

She imagined trying to justify her decision to her teenage son, musing about telling him it’s okay to grab a woman’s butt without her consent, but not her breast. The crowd laughed. Her real words to her son: “It’s not okay for you. It’s not okay for Sen. Franken. It’s not okay.”

Gillibrand and Franken at a 2011 news conference to discuss women’s health issues in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Gillibrand’s explanation didn’t change Pearcy’s mind. “Maybe [Gillibrand] really does feel like we can’t sit back,” Pearcy said after the event. “But the other party wouldn’t have.”

Her 19-year-old daughter pleaded with her mother. “They’re trying to change society,” Sophie Sperduto said.

“But Trump could change the republic,” Pearcy fired back to her daughter, exasperated. “We’re in a crisis.”

Pearcy also questions Gillibrand’s motives. She would have spoken to Franken in private, if it were her, rather than calling for his resignation on Twitter. “I wouldn’t have made it about me,” she said, adding that Gillibrand “is thinking about 2020.”

Pearcy, an ardent Clinton supporter, said her comments about Gillibrand’s motivation aren’t about gender. She’d feel the same about a male would-be candidate if she believed he’d needlessly turned on a fellow Democrat and put the party at risk of losing to Trump.

But other liberals are taking the ambition critique further. Multiple emerging female Democratic leaders are the target of the same attack Hillary Clinton endured for years — that she’s only out for herself. If this old sexist line continues, Democrats could leave a mark on their field of female stars heading into 2020. As such, it requires asking the question: Are Democrats brave enough to run a woman against Trump?

Potential 2020 women candidates are facing the same criticisms as Clinton

Voters didn’t trust Hillary. She was power-hungry. She was out for herself. She was, the explanation for this attitude went, a Clinton.

As a participant in one of pollster Frank Luntz’s focus groups in 2015 put it: “She’s lied again and again and again in the pursuit of power. This has been her entire life’s work.”

But now, inside the post-Hillary Democratic Party, liberals are lobbing the same she’s-too-ambitious insult at women who aren’t named Clinton, like Gillibrand, California Sen. Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders’s loyal ally Nina Turner.

Gillibrand and Kamala Harris with Katie Couric at a 2014 Vanity Fair conference in San Francisco.
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, billionaire George Soros accused Gillibrand of singlehandedly orchestrating Franken’s ouster “in order to improve her chances” of winning in 2020. He swore he’d never support her.

This attitude isn’t unique to Soros. A vocal minority of liberals, and at least one other large liberal donor, believe Gillibrand sent Franken to the stocks to eliminate a potential rival.

When I wrote a piece on Franken recently, dozens of liberals emailed me about her role. “Gillibrand is on her own agenda for 2020.” Another wrote to say Franken resigned over “political gamesmanship being played by Gillibrand,” who, as another reader put it, is nothing more than “an opportunist.”

Democrats acknowledge that the Franken fracas is a microcosm of themes playing out in national politics amid the #MeToo movement. “When a woman uses power and takes on the patriarchy, the system defends the patriarchy. People get upset,” one Democratic strategist said. The solution, many liberals believe, is to run more women. “Democrats get that,” the strategist added.

Within months of taking office, Kamala Harris became the target of a campaign by the far left to make sure she didn’t start making moves to run for the White House. The socialist magazine Jacobin explained the left’s objections to her, pointing out Harris’s positions on a variety of policy areas where they deem her too conservative. A quick perusal of the Twitter hashtag at the heart of the campaign, #NeverKamala, though, shows that not all of her critics object to her based solely on her positions. There are many comments laced with sexism and racism.

Sen. Harris (D-CA) at the Capitol in May.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Bernie Sanders’s ally Turner, meanwhile, has been accused of self-interested behavior too. In a Politico article detailing legitimate questions about Sanders’s political organization, Our Revolution, Turner is accused by her critics not just of managing the organization badly but of putting herself first:

“Based on the amount of time that she has spent doing that outward-facing work, that would be a logical question to ask,” said Lucy Flores, the board member who resigned in April. “At some point the question is … ‘Do you want to focus on running this organization and making sure it is transparent, building it up’” or on raising her profile? “You do have to make that decision.”

Despite #MeToo, despite the rise of the women-led resistance, and despite an unprecedented number of women running in Democratic congressional primaries across the country this year, a vocal faction of liberals is holding women in the Democratic Party to an old double standard. When men are ambitious and make savvy political moves, they’re admired. When women do the same thing, they’re admonished.

“Nothing draws fire like a woman moving forward,” said Hillary Clinton, as her communications director Jennifer Palmieri recounted in her book, Dear Madam President. But now women in the Democratic Party are drawing friendly fire.

Americans are uncomfortable with female leadership

The canon on women and leadership lives, for the most part, on the far side of depressing.

One prominent study found that people are less likely to vote for a woman if they see her as “power-seeking,” while male politicians pay no price for similar behavior. The same study found that power-seeking female politicians induced “feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust)” among voters. These attitudes were the same among men and women.

This phenomenon was widely cited as an explanation for why Clinton’s approval ratings sank from nearly 70 percent when she served as secretary of state to the 40s by Election Day. Voters were comfortable with Clinton working hard, but as she pursued power, their feelings changed.

Clinton at a campaign stop in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2016.
Kainaz Amaria/Vox

The shorthand for all this — ambition — is a celebrated trait in men. But both men and women don’t like ambitious women. In one prominent study by researchers at Columbia Business School, participants looked over the impressive résumé of a fictional job applicant named Heidi. Participants, on the whole, didn’t like Heidi much and described her as selfish. When researchers changed Heidi’s name to Howard, participants not only liked the applicant but wanted to be colleagues.

Gillibrand herself has written about this issue. In her book, Off the Sidelines, she dedicates a chapter to the idea that “ambition isn’t a dirty word.”

But it was a dirty word in 2016. It was starkest in Clinton’s concession speech, which was greeted with wide praise in the media. Even her most ferocious detractors were pleased, like conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, and early Trump supporter and Republican strategist Will Kremer, who tweeted: “Hillary Clinton is giving an incredible concession speech. It embodies grace, humility, and respect. I’m beyond impressed by her right now.”

When Hillary was an ambitious candidate fighting for the power of the presidency, she was disliked. When she acquiesced, she was celebrated.

Democrats worry a lot about white men

Trump beat Clinton by nearly 50 points among blue-collar white men, which gave him an edge in Midwestern states and carried him to an Electoral College victory.

Many Democrats are desperate to make a dent in this demographic, or at least stop the bleeding. But grasping the mantle of #MeToo, especially when it brings down popular figures like Franken, makes many liberals uneasy.

It is certainly true that white men, particularly those without college degrees, swung hard for Trump. And while Trump did no better with white men than Mitt Romney, Clinton did considerably worse with white men than Barack Obama.

But making inroads with white men isn’t the only, or even a very likely, solution to Democrats’ problem.

Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight unpacks what happened in 2016 between Clinton and Trump, starting out with the premise that, overall, the two candidates were less liked by Americans than most presidential candidates: “No major party nominee before Clinton or Trump had a double-digit net negative ‘strong favorability’ rating. Clinton’s would be the lowest ever, except for Trump.”

It’s difficult, then, to extrapolate how another Democrat might perform in the future against Trump. Would another candidate just have a higher likability than Clinton? It’s hard to say.

But it’s worth noting that the demographic story of 2016 isn’t just about white men, regardless. According to exit polls:

  • Trump’s coup among whites was polarized by education level: He picked up 62 percent of all white men and 52 percent of all white women. But among white men without a college degree, he won a staggering 71 percent. Among white women without a college degree, he won 61 percent.
  • Clinton, meanwhile, performed best among white college-educated women, performing slightly better than Barack Obama.
  • She performed less well than Obama among every other group, even black women, a key Democratic voting bloc. She performed, overall, less well with minority voters.

Then there was an unexpected surge in third-party voting. As my college Matthew Yglesias explained: “Exit polls indicate that a majority of voters were persuaded by Clinton’s arguments that Trump was unqualified and temperamentally unsuited for the presidency, but a decent swath of voters who agreed with her about that voted third party rather than for Trump’s opponent — ultimately denying Clinton the victory.”

Democrats have reason to be concerned about white men. But they’ve also got other groups to worry about, including minority voters, black women, and voters inclined to vote third party. There’s no obvious answer. But it’s clear that running a woman against Trump isn’t itself the problem.

Democrats have to put down baggage to move ahead

The election of Donald Trump ignited a political movement driven by women. Millions protested the day after his inauguration. Millions more joined in to say #MeToo and demand accountability for sexual harassment and assault that’s gone ignored for too long. They’re driving fundraising. They’re running for office in unprecedented numbers.

Demonstrators on the National Mall in Washington, DC, participating in the Women’s March on January 21, 2017.
Andrews Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

At the Washington event I attended this past week, the crowd erupted in shocked cheers and applause when Gillibrand said that the pro-abortion rights group Emily’s List, which usually helps about 1,000 women per election cycle interested in running for office, is helping more than 36,000 this year.

Women are also making a big difference in special elections, where Democrats have overperformed. In Alabama, for example, black women sent Democrat Doug Jones to the Senate.

Amid all of this enthusiasm and new energy, some liberals are still skeptical. They worry that they lost to Trump once by holding themselves to a higher standard. Now is not the time to face him in a battle of ideals.

Many of these liberals, however, are from another era. Soros is 87. Even Bill Clinton, 71, surfaced recently to weigh in, noting that “norms have really changed in terms of, what you can do to somebody against their will, how much you can crowd their space, make them miserable at work,” he said.

He went on to defend Franken. “Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned person,” Clinton said, “but it seemed to me that there were 29 women on Saturday Night Live that put out a statement for him, and that the first and most fantastic story was called, I believe, into question.”

Democrats who want to move in a new direction will have to convince not only the old guard inside the party but women like Joan Gregory, 74, who arrived to hear Gillibrand speak Tuesday night, skeptical of her decision on Franken.

A Minnesotan herself, Gregory said that she had bumped into Franken at the gym with another friend recently. “[We told him] that we were supportive of him as a senator,” she said.

But she left Tuesday night with her mind changed.

“Hearing [Gillibrand] tonight,” Gregory said, “I feel she did what she had to do, absolutely. She’s worked on sexual assault issues for years. How could she not?”

She paused.

“I would vote for her for president.”

Gillibrand delivering remarks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention on July 25, 2016, in Philadelphia.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
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