Can any lessons for our 2008 presidential election be discerned from the election that just took place in France? I think not.
Sarkozy’s election might be cited for the proposition that a member of an unpopular ruling party, and indeed a member of the unpopular ruling government, can win by distancing himself from the outgoing president. However, Sarkozy has a long history as Jacques Chirac’s adversary. The only similarly situated Republican contender is John McCain. But McCain is perhaps the foremost supporter of President Bush’s policy on Iraq, and Iraq is the main reason why Bush is so unpopular. To be sure, McCain opposed Bush’s approach to Iraq for years. However, he’s joined at the hip with the president when it comes to current policy. To the extent that policy is viewed as unsuccessful, McCain will be hard-pressed to distance himself from the president. The bottom line is that Republican prospects are not doomed by Bush’s unpopularity, but the party can’t take much solace from Sarkozy’s success.
On the Democratic side, the question arises whether Segolene Royal’s defeat suggests that Hillary Clinton’s gender may pose a problem for her. The premise of the question is that Royal’s gender hurt her. It’s a plausible premise, but only because Royal played into her gender stereotype. Looking like she had walked out of a film by Eric Rohmer (“Segolene, a la plage”?), Royal projected a certain lightness and breeziness. Her grasp of details was tenuous at times, and she committed several early gaffes. Then, in her debate with Sarkozy, she became angry and emotional during a discussion of the handicapped.
Hillary Clinton, who reportedly refused to meet with Royal earlier this year, is the anti-Segolene. There’s nothing light or breezy about her, and she’s noted for her grasp of details. In debates, Clinton is far more likely to err on the side of woodenness than excess emotion.
I think Clinton’s refusal to apologize for her vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution should be understood in this context. She recognizes the peril of showing weakness, and thus leaves apologies to the men (her husband was terrific at it) who are less likely to be penalized for making them.
Hillary may lose because she’s seen as a heavy, but she won’t lose because she’s seen as a lightweight. Royal’s defeat should not concern her supporters.
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