I know many of you are disappointed the race for the Democratic nomination has come down to a choice between two white males, especially when the original field included so many exceptional women of varied experience and vision. So am I. As I listened to Elizabeth Warren announce the suspension of her campaign, I could sense her deep disappointment and pain. The realization she would not be “the one,” as Barack Obama became for African Americans, weighed heavily on her and must have been personally devastating.
And I asked the same question many of her supporters must have pondered. What does it take for a woman to rise to the highest office in the United States? Especially when 29 other countries currently have a female head of state and 75 countries have previously had the same distinction dating back to Yevgenia Bosch, who, in 1917, became chairwoman of the People’s Secretariat of Ukraine.
What is even more tiring is the plethora of excuses why clearly qualified women who throw their hats in the ring have fallen short. Some are specific to a candidate, e.g. Hillary was a victim of Clinton fatigue or she had too much baggage. Others are more general including media bias, holding female candidates to a different standard and, of course, good old fashioned American misogyny. But instead of focusing on the candidate, what if the problem is a structural problem with the way we choose our national leadership or a failure by the party to establish and support a career ladder designed specifically to prepare women to demonstrate their bona fides to sit behind the Resolute Desk.
I will start with the structural issue. Of those 29 current female heads of state, an overwhelming majority serve as prime minister instead of being a popularly elected president. Just imagine. If we also had a parliamentary system of government, Nancy Pelosi would be prime minister! When the decision who leads the country is made by one’s peers, a lot of the noise associated with plebiscites disappears. Appearance is just not that important. Ask Golda Meir. Or likability in the case of Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady. Even in Pakistan, where Islam with its laws restricting women’s rights is the official state religion, Benazir Bhutto was chosen prime minister by parliamentary members of the ruling party.
Well folks, I would not hold my breath waiting for a revision of Articles I and II of the Constitution. Which makes the second option, examining the career path by which a woman can more easily overcome the roadblocks, real and perceived, to win the Democratic Party nomination and a majority of the electoral college the only alternative. (WARNING: In the interest of truth in advertising, please note that my own government experience consists of working for three governors and six years as a policy director at the National Governors Association (NGA). My opinions may be influenced by that exposure to executive versus legislative branch elected officials.)
In 2003, a friend and colleague asked me if I would have lunch with one of his friends, a cattle rancher and Democratic party leader in Nebraska, who was contemplating a run for governor in the upcoming election. Before offering any insights or advice, I asked, “Why are you running and what makes you think you can win in a state that is trending Republican?” His reply made sense. His rural values were more akin to those of the average Cornhusker than the typical Democratic candidate who hailed from Omaha or Lincoln. And he favored conservative positions on many of the issues (e.g. pro-life, gun rights) which set him apart from Democrats who lost statewide races. Right, it made sense if you were running for Congress in Nebraska, but not governor. I told him, “You are not running for legislator-in-chief. You’re running for chief executive of a large enterprise. Focus on your executive credentials. Talk about what is not working and how you are better prepared to fix it.”
Want a definition of irony? The potential candidate’s wife joined us for lunch. When he pushed back, she was the one who urged him to pay attention. I wondered who in this family was responsible for the success of their cattle ranch or whether she would have made a better candidate for governor.
Why do I share this story? Because I believe the first woman president of the United States will be a former governor, not a senator. The Republicans get it. If she had not been so batsh** crazy, Sarah Palin was on the path to the White House. And what are the rumors circulating in Washington today? Trump will scapegoat Mike Pence if the coronavirus reaches catastrophic proportions and will replace him with Nikki Haley. Not Senator Joni Ernst (Iowa), Susan Collins (Maine), Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee) or Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia). NO! Nikki Haley, the former GOVERNOR of South Carolina.
Mark Twain once said, “I was never able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.” To this day, I believe Dianne Feinstein should have been the first presidential nominee of a major party and would have had a better than even chance of winning the general election. Why? On November 27, 1978, Feinstein proved she was up to the task when she became mayor of San Francisco following the assassinations of mayor George Moscone and councilman Harvey Milk. It’s easy to be president when everything is fairly calm and routine. The true test is crisis management, and no one did it better than Feinstein. She then went on to win re-election twice despite her moderate positions on many issues, contrary to the more liberal preferences of Bay City voters.
Imagine if Walter Mondale, in 1984, wanting to make history, had chosen Feinstein as his running mate instead of congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro. Feinstein would have had both the executive experience and national recognition to be a contender for the 1988 Democratic nomination. That’s what I call a career ladder designed to shatter the glass ceiling.
This was not the only lost opportunity. In 2002, three Democratic women were elected governor. Jennifer Granholm (Michigan). Janet Napolitano (Arizona). Kathleen Sebelius (Kansas). Notice anything their respective states have in common? None are solid blue. And all three won re-election four years later. Someone must have thought they had proved their executive skills. And as I think about about a different scenario in 1984, I wonder if the 2008 nomination contest would have been fundamentally different if one of these three woman had been in the mix.
When I chose political science as my major in college, my dream job was to work on Capitol Hill as personal staff to a representative or senator or as committee staff. But fate, as she does, took me in a different direction. Though I did eventually end up with an office across the street from the Capitol, it was in the Hall of the States with NGA. Just as I posted a few days ago (You Say You Want a Revolution), great ideas are tested at the state and local level. So are great people. If the Democratic Party could think about the long game, they would create a counterpart to Emily’s List with the sole focus on grooming women to compete for governor in all 50 states. Maybe they could call it Nellie’s List, in honor of Nellie Ross, the first female governor, a Democrat in 1925 from (drum roll) Wyoming.
For what it’s worth.