In 2000, when Rep. Rick Lazio left his debate podium to wag a finger at Hillary Clinton, the former first lady managed to look bemused. Lazio laid a copy of The New York Freedom from Soft Money Pact—a document that would effectively ban largely unregulated campaign donations—on her podium. He then proceeded to jab at it while commanding her to “sign it.” Later, as viewers expressed distaste for the Congressman’s debate tactics, both campaigns would claim that sexism had occurred—but against whom?
The New York Times reported that Clinton felt bullied by Lazio “in a way that he would not have bullied a male opponent.”
Meanwhile, the Associated Press and ABC News ran her opponent’s take: “The idea that somehow that there’s a double standard because you’re a man or a woman, and you can’t make a point forcefully if you’re a man, and the person you’re making the point with is a woman, I just think that’s sexist.”
It didn’t matter that Hillary Clinton had put herself in the position of debate. Female voters still saw the Congressman as every bullying boyfriend, aggressive husband, or patronizing male academic they’d ever encountered.
Meanwhile, far more men than just Bill Clinton saw a guy get a little too close to their woman—and didn’t like it one bit. “Sign it” might as well have been “suck it” from Lazio, who was left whining that he wasn’t allowed to hit a woman—even when she was in his boxing ring.
As I watched the first presidential debate of 2012 I was reminded of Lazio, whose campaign never rose from that one grave mistake.
Last Thursday, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama exhibited boorish behavior toward moderator Jim Lehrer. Mid-debate I fielded an irate text from my mom: “Romney needs to go back to second grade,” where statistically he would be taught by a nurturing, female teacher not to interrupt.
“Mitt Romney wanted to play by his own rules, and that came across loud and clear,” Obama spokesperson Stephanie Cutter wrote to Politico. These liberties came with no penalty, but rather the belated branding of Romney as aggressive and presidential, accompanied by copious Twitter snark directed at a passive Jim Lehrer.
What about Jane Lehrer? You know, Jim’s fictional female alter ego. I don’t think we can say with certainty that Jane would have received the same criticism of passivity. In fact, Obama’s “You interrupted me” may have taken on a new, darker tone. That’s no way to talk to your second grade teacher.
“Hey!” You might be thinking, “No imaginary moderators in politics.” But we don’t really have to imagine the influence of gender in political debate—we’ve seen it. Even with Jim Lehrer in the moderator’s seat, it’s no stretch to say that there would be a word for a female politician who—following the example of Romney—repeatedly cut off a moderator’s attempts to apply time limits. It begins with a b.
This week, leading up to the vice presidential debate, Politico’s Jonathan Martin asked whether it would be Gentleman Joe or Scranton Joe, who would show up to take on Paul Ryan; “Scranton Joe” being Biden at his scrappy best, and “Gentleman Joe” being the 2008 version of a candidate who was “determined not to come off as patronizing or bullying Sarah Palin.”
I’d like Joe to be free to let his Scranton flag fly, despite the sex of his opponent. I’d like to turn back time and watch Hillary Clinton brandish a well-manicured nail two feet from Rick Lazio’s eyeball—if only to take my own turn at being bemused when “bitch” rather than “bully” became the buzzword of the election.
And then, you know what I’d like? I’d like politicians to stop it with the finger-wagging once and for all. Podiums were meant to be stood behind, and moderators were meant to be respected.
Gender is a factor in political debate, and if Martin’s right it’s here to stay. As voters, let’s counteract the confounding influence of boobs by agreeing on a set of debate best practices and holding politicians accountable to meet them. Nobody gets his or her own set of rules. My second grade teacher taught me that.