It’s been stabbed in the back, set on fire, drowned, and buried six feet under. But like the traditional horror-movie slasher, the Democratic party’s favorite political trope is slowly clawing its way back to the surface.
In other words, the “War on Women” is back. Despite its inability to turn out Democratic voters in 2014, Hillary Clinton’s team is digging up the strategy this election cycle. If early barbs are any indication, Republican candidates should prepare for a vicious, scorched-earth campaign that eschews critiques on equal pay and abortion for comparisons to rapacious jihadists. Whether the intensified attacks will prove more effective with a woman at the helm remains an open question.
A recent hit by Hillary’s campaign manager on two GOP hopefuls shows that the Clinton camp is already putting on the brass knuckles. At a New York City women’s summit in April, as part of a larger comment touching on women’s liberty worldwide, Hillary seemed to suggest that Americans with a religious objection to abortion should be forced to surrender to progressive views on the subject. “Far too many women are denied access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth, and laws don’t count for much if they’re not enforced,” she said. “And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.”
Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal both pounced, with the former Florida governor saying he was “deeply troubled” by the remark and the Louisiana governor suggesting that Clinton wanted to put Christian Americans in “reeducation camps.”
Clinton campaign manager John Podesta responded on June 19. “Hillary Clinton has spoken out for decades against extremists who pervert the world’s great religions to justify brutality against women and girls,” he told Buzzfeed. “That is what Republicans are attacking her for.”
Then he threw a virtual firebomb, equating the GOP’s views on women with those held by jihadists from the ultra-violent Islamic State. “ISIS claims their religious faith justifies forcing Yazidi women in Iraq into sexual slavery. Does Governor Bush think we should respect that practice?” he asked. “The Taliban torture women in Afghanistan in the name of their twisted version of Islam. Does Governor Jindal think that is acceptable? What about forced marriages or throwing acid in women’s faces?”
“If Republicans think standing up to these atrocities is part of Hillary Clinton’s progressive agenda, we are proud to agree,” he said.
It was a far cry from the relatively reserved criticisms the Obama administration leveled against Mitt Romney over equal pay in 2012, or the scaremongering over abortion rights that Democrats unsuccessfully deployed against Republican senators in 2014. Bush and Jindal said the attack conflated not only their campaigns, but also millions of American Christians, with murderous, rape-loving religious fundamentalists. “We found it disturbing that Podesta would compare American Christians acting on their conscience to ISIS,” says Bush spokesman Tim Miller. Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin says the Clintons “are famous for siccing their attack dogs on anyone who catches them in the act.”
Some political operatives think Podesta’s pushback was unnecessarily brutal, especially so early in a presidential cycle. “This is not light machine-gun fire in the campaign,” says Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “This is heavy artillery being brought in early to try to define Republican candidates.”
Others weren’t shocked by Podesta’s strident tone. “It seems like this is a relatively normal tit-for-tat, back and forth among campaigns,” says Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Nathan Gonzalez, editor of the Rothenberg & Gonzalez Political Report, says Podesta’s response is intense but not unexpected. “We used to make distinctions between off-year and on-year, or early in the cycle versus late in the cycle,” he says. “I think we’ve moved into an era where campaigns are running at full speed all the time.”
Some political operatives think Podesta’s pushback was unnecessarily brutal, especially so early in a presidential cycle.
Podesta is known for his sharp tongue; in 2013, he was forced to apologize after calling the GOP-controlled House “a cult worthy of Jonestown,” the South American enclave whose residents committed mass suicide in 1978. Bonjean thinks a similar mea culpa is necessary with the ISIS barb. “It needs to be responded to, because it is over the top and unacceptable,” says Bonjean, who hopes the Republican candidates demand an apology for “accusing Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal of sidling up to ISIS and the Taliban.”
That’s unlikely, says Gonzalez, because Podesta’s comparison wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark. “Podesta is an experienced operative of campaigns and Washington,” he says. “I tend to think that with people in his position, there aren’t a lot of accidents.”
Analysts believe Podesta’s excessive attack on the Republican candidates is a harbinger of the Democratic party’s return to a well-worn playbook. “What they’re trying to do, early on, is bring back the ‘GOP War on Women’ mantra,” says Bonjean. “And this is a really nasty way to do it, by comparing Bush and Jindal to ISIS and the Taliban in how they might treat women. This is an early indicator that they’re going to start pounding the drum.”
“I think you have a Democratic party that is continually emboldened on what they call ‘women’s rights issues,’” says Gonzalez, explaining that Clinton and the rest of her party feel that they’re on solid ground when taking the fight to Republicans on such issues as abortion and birth control.
It’s an unexpected strategy, since Democrats were widely criticized for overplaying the “War on Women” hand in 2014. Defeated former Colorado senator Mark Udall was roundly mocked for his strident claim that his opponent would “outlaw birth control,” earning the nickname “Mark Uterus” for his obsession with the subject. Uninspired by the vitriol, women nationwide voted Republican — or simply didn’t vote at all. A slew of news articles after the November election discussed how the “War on Women” strategy had backfired.
With all the talk of shattered glass ceilings, Clinton has made it clear that she considers her womanhood a central element of her White House push. Her communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, admitted earlier this month that Clinton’s gender was an “asset” for the campaign. But a National Journal article from April illustrates broad disillusionment among young movement feminists with the Clinton brand, a sense that she’s not genuinely part of their struggle. Radical comparisons between Republicans and the Taliban, Bonjean says, are meant to “solidify that part of the coalition.”
Of course, there’s no reason War on Women 2016 won’t turn out like War on Women 2014, even with a woman at the wheel. “There’s a boomerang effect to it,” says Bonjean. “It’s overkill . . . and frankly, I think it turns voters off.”
– Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review Online.