Gender Contender

An old joke in Washington has it that every member of the Senate sees a future president when he or she looks in the mirror.

Actually, make that he. Once again, it appears that the Democrats will entertain any number of pretenders to the presidential throne from the Senate -- among them John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Bob Graham of Florida and perhaps Joseph Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut -- plus several candidates from outside the Senate. But none will be female.

The last woman to mount even a halfway serious Democratic bid for the White House was former Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado in 1988. It's soon to be 2004, for crying out loud. Where are the women candidates?

None of the Senate's 10 Democratic women is likely to run this time around, even though one -- Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- currently finds herself in the enviable (and historic) position of trouncing the pack of likely male candidates, according to a recent survey.

Clinton would no doubt be the person to beat in this year's Democratic primary -- if she decided to run. A poll conducted by Time magazine earlier this month showed that 30 percent of the 400 registered Democrats surveyed said they would vote for Clinton to carry the Democratic banner in 2004. Kerry and Lieberman trailed far behind with 13 percent a piece, while several other hopefuls -- Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, retired General Wesley Clark, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Daschle -- posted only single-digit showings.

But perhaps sensing that George W. Bush would be difficult to unseat, Clinton appears to be waiting for what could be an easier race in 2008. Instead, she plans to keep her promise to serve out her first senatorial term -- and some say that leaves a glaring void in the Democratic field.

"Men wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, 'I should run for president,' " says Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to electing America's first woman president. "It's much more difficult for women because it's not normal yet to step up."

Karen O'Connor, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, agrees. "When we're thinking about potential candidates, I don't think anyone sees [any women] emerging to run," she says. "And that's really sad."

In a country where women make up 52 percent of the population, no woman has even floated the idea of a potential candidacy alongside dozens of male candidates. Then again, it's hardly surprising. America ranks 52nd among nations in its representation of women in national office and ties for 55th (with the Slovak Republic) in terms of women's membership in the lower house of the legislature. Women represent 14 percent of the U.S. Congress, 22 percent of state legislatures and 10 percent of governors' seats. Of the more than 12,000 members of Congress who have served since the United States' founding, 215, or 2 percent, have been women.

A serious woman presidential candidate -- even if she didn't win -- could go a long way toward improving on this dismal history. Research shows that female candidates for any office set positive examples for young women who tend not to envision themselves in the political realm. The more women who run for president, the more voters can begin to adjust to the idea of a woman holding the nation's highest office -- shifting the focus from candidates' gender to their qualifications and views.

In addition, O'Connor argues that women candidates can influence the political debate by addressing issues of particular concern to female voters, some of which male candidates tend to ignore. She cites domestic issues such as gun control and welfare as examples of crucial topics that male candidates often downplay on the campaign trail.

Abortion rights is one issue that was virtually ignored in the 2002 midterm elections but should loom larger in this election cycle, when the GOP controls the executive and legislative branches and when one, or perhaps two, Supreme Court justices are expected to retire. Women, O'Connor says, are more likely than men to campaign on that issue.

"The real concern is that the concerns of more than half the population won't be addressed [if a woman doesn't run]," she says.

But it's not as if Hillary Clinton is the only woman man enough for the job, so to speak. To the contrary, there are a host of women senators -- many of whom have lengthier experience and greater clout than their more ambitious male colleagues -- who could mount viable campaigns.

Take, for example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a two-term officeholder from the most populous state in the nation, the first woman mayor of San Francisco and a member of the intelligence and judiciary committees. Four-term Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) would also make a solid candidate. She is the longest serving woman in the Senate and holds the third-ranking position in her caucus. And then there's Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a veteran legislator who in December scored a solid blow against President Bush and the Republican Party by defeating their favored candidate in a contested runoff.

There are also numerous Democratic women outside the Senate who could run viable campaigns. One of the most obvious would be the highest-ranking woman in congressional history, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

To be sure, it's disappointing that no women have stepped forward, but you can't just blame women politicians themselves for failing to get into the race. It's also the Democratic Party that bears some culpability here, for it is the parties that are chiefly responsible for encouraging -- even anointing -- presidential candidates via, among other methods, the "Great Mentioner," that nebulous group of inside-the-Beltway staffers that promotes the names of potential candidates to the press.

If the Republican Party -- not exactly known for championing equality of the sexes -- could feature Elizabeth Dole in the 2000 elections, the Democratic Party should at least be able to generate the name of one woman candidate who could toss her hat into a wide-open ring.


Allison Stevens is political editor of The Hill.