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National Editorial & Columnists

NATIONAL EDITORIAL: Why hasn't a woman been elected president?

Democratic debates should have put the issue to rest

Yes, a woman can be elected president of the United States. It’s time to put that non-issue behind us. One nearly was, and it wasn’t her gender that dealt her a loss.

As Bernie Sanders pointed out in the Jan. 14 Democratic debate in Iowa, “Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes.”

Everywhere else, that would have been enough.

Regrettably, the United States is burdened with an anachronism called the Electoral College, reflecting the mistrust of small states for large ones. A system crafted to elect George Washington most recently served up someone most unlike him.

Just 77,000 more votes in three key states made the difference between a President Clinton and a President Trump 4 years ago; between having a First Man or a First Lady in the White House.

That was so close, it could have been Russia’s meddling that made the difference. Or James Comey’s October surprise. Or Clinton’s failure to campaign in three normally safe states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – that she had lost to Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

It used to be said that a Roman Catholic couldn’t be elected president. Then John F. Kennedy was.

Divorce was assumed to be a disqualification. Ronald Reagan disproved that. Race was the next frontier. Then Barack Obama was elected.

In the current campaign, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is a formidable contender. She’d be even stronger if she weren’t contending with Sanders for the same voters. She scored points in the Des Moines debate by observing, truthfully, that the men on the stage had collectively lost 10 elections while she and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota were undefeated.

That Klobuchar remains in a dwindling field reflects her potential as the moderate alternative to Sanders or Warren if Joe Biden doesn’t do well in the early caucus and primary states. There is no question that either of those women is a qualified rival to Trump.

Male machismo and misogyny – the only reasons for even asking whether a woman could be president – are hardly unique to the United States. Yet 59 other nations, spanning the globe and every region and ethnicity, have had women as heads of government. Why hasn’t it happened here?

One reason is that it took time to break the glass ceilings in Congress, state capitals and the vice presidency, which are the traditional proving grounds for presidential prospects.

Since women were enfranchised 101 years ago, only five Democratic women and two Republicans have attained enough political exposure and stature to be taken seriously as candidates in the two major parties. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was the first, opposing Barry Goldwater for the 1964 GOP nomination. Clinton gave Obama strong competition in 2008 before winning the nomination 8 years later.

But only two women have been chosen as running mates, and both tickets lost – Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008. Another reason is that many of those other nations, notably Great Britain and Israel, are parliamentary democracies that do not directly elect their heads of government. Their prime ministers have generally come up through party ranks, showcasing their talents. In our nation’s infancy, it was the party caucuses in Congress that nominated presidential candidates.

The Democratic debates should have put to rest the gender issue. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observed, pointed questions could also be raised over age – Biden is 77 and Sanders is 78 – and over Pete Buttigieg’s identity as a gay man who has a male spouse.

“Doesn’t that make them risky nominees in their own ways?” Bruni wrote. “If Warren and Klobuchar were less polite and restrained, they might have said so last night. Instead they just turned in debate performances that showed just how commanding women are.

It was CNN, rather than any of the candidates, that performed the worst in the debate. That distinction owes to one of the moderators, Abby Phillip, who in effect called Sanders a liar after he denied Warren’s claim that he had told her a woman couldn’t be elected president. Turning to Warren, Phillip asked her, “What did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”

It was a loaded question that Sanders didn’t get a chance to rebut. Poynter Institute media critic Tom Jones rightly called it “stunning in its ineptitude, stunning in its unprofessionalism.”

Warren was clearly uncomfortable. “I disagreed,” she said, and sought to change the subject.

So, can a woman be elected president? Yes. So can a man. There is no material difference. What really matters is who are qualified, competent and trustworthy.

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