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New York Times: Donald Trump’s Gender-Based Attacks on Hillary Clinton Have Calculated Risk

April 28, 2016

New York Times: Donald Trump's Gender-Based Attacks on Hillary Clinton Have Calculated Risk

By Amy Chozick and Ashley Parker

With the nation on the verge of a presidential election between the first woman to lead a major party and an opponent accused of misogyny, Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump are digging in for a fight in which he is likely to attack her precisely because she is a woman.

Mr. Trump, the Republican favorite, has already proved willing to attack Mrs. Clinton in ways that many women find sexist and that her supporters consider out of bounds.

This week alone, he accused her of playing the “woman’s card” to get where she is, saying, “If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote.” He questioned her “strength” and “stamina,” and he mocked her for “shouting.” Also this year, he attacked Mrs. Clinton as the enabling political spouse of a former president who Mr. Trump said had abused women.

Mrs. Clinton’s advisers say they are confident that such comments will galvanize Democrats — and infuriate nearly any woman who has ever had to work harder than a man. But they also recognize that Mr. Trump has proved adept at reading the electorate and at dominating news coverage — and that Mrs. Clinton must parry his attacks without overplaying her hand or further eroding her standing with male voters, whom she has struggled to win over in the Democratic primary.

Mr. Trump’s advisers, meanwhile, say that the woman’s card attack serves to undermine Mrs. Clinton by sowing doubts about her qualifications — not just with men, but with white women, who have supported the Republican nominee in every election since 1996 and are vital to Mr. Trump’s chances in November.

“He’s going to have to deconstruct Hillary Clinton if he’s going to run against her,” said Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime Trump confidant. “He can’t let her be the august secretary of state and former senator.”

Democrats say the strategy is an exercise in delusion, given Mr. Trump’s weakness among women: They are solidly in Mrs. Clinton’s corner against Mr. Trump so far in the polls. Fifty percent of white women said they would support her, to 39 percent for him, according to a CBS News poll in April.

“It seems like a real strategic misstep for him, considering he has unprecedented problems with women in his own party,” said Jess McIntosh, vice president of communications at Emily’s List, which works to elect Democrats who support abortion rights and is backing Mrs. Clinton.

Some Republicans, similarly, cringed. “When people rally around her are when people bring things up about her husband’s infidelities and when it appears as though she’s being attacked by the boys’ club,” said Katie Packer, who runs an anti-Trump group and co-founded a consulting firm that helps Republicans communicate to women.

But even some Republican political operatives fiercely opposed to Mr. Trump say he is pursuing what could be a sound strategy by turning Mrs. Clinton’s chance to make history against her while deflecting scrutiny of his own weakness among female voters.

“By taking gender head-on, Trump refuses to cede women voters and so-called women’s issues to Hillary just because she is a woman,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who heads a “super PAC” supporting Senator Ted Cruz.

“He is ‘Swiftboating’ her by throwing shade on what should be a strength,” Ms. Conway said in an email, referring to the 2004 attacks on John Kerry’s war record, which turned a strength into a weakness and diverted attention from President George W. Bush’s own vulnerabilities.

Ms. Conway added that Mr. Trump could sully Mrs. Clinton’s record of advocacy on issues like pay inequity by saying she has accomplished too little on them. “Next he’ll say, ‘Ladies: She shares your gender and nothing else,’ ” Ms. Conway said. “ ‘It takes you years to earn what Wall Street paid her for a single 25-minute speech that wasn’t even that interesting.’ ”

With the Democratic primary winding down, Mrs. Clinton’s advisers say they have been analyzing why Mr. Trump’s attacks were so damaging to Republican rivals like Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio to determine how Mrs. Clinton can avoid the same pitfalls.

Since her victories on Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton has met with advisers at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., to discuss taking on Mr. Trump. A playbook is beginning to come together.

On the debate stage, Mrs. Clinton will not respond in kind to personal attacks: No jokes about Mr. Trump’s hair or the size of his hands. When Mr. Trump’s comments dominate the news, her campaign plans to stick to its message, even if it means being momentarily eclipsed. And when Mr. Trump accuses Mrs. Clinton of playing the woman’s card, Mrs. Clinton will pivot to issues like equal pay for women, paid family and medical leave and raising the minimum wage.

“This can’t be a tit for tat on comedic insults,” said Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist. But, she added, without the right pushback, Mr. Trump’s attacks “could have a corrosive impact, and that’s what the campaign is thinking hard about.”

Still, pushing back against Mr. Trump is unlikely to go unanswered. In January, after Mrs. Clinton accused him of being sexist, he warned that Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions would be fair game, accused Mrs. Clinton of impugning the reputations of women who accused her husband of sexual indiscretions, then boasted that Mrs. Clinton had been intimidated into dropping the subject.

Aides to Mr. Trump, three of whom insisted on anonymity to discuss the campaign’s internal deliberations, suggested he would likely return to that line of attack as his campaign prepares for a fall contest with Mrs. Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton’s advisers said she would not directly respond to such attacks or allow them to stop her from calling Mr. Trump sexist. Rather, they said, her campaign would rely on surrogates and television ads paid for by a super PAC to rebut them and to highlight Mr. Trump’s record with women.

In a sign of how closely Mrs. Clinton’s aides are watching Mr. Trump’s every step, after his advisers signaled last week that Mr. Trump would start behaving more “presidentially,” the Clinton campaign released an online ad, called “Extremist Makeover,” replaying some of his most controversial utterances about Muslims, immigrants and women. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them,” Mrs. Clinton said in the ad, quoting Maya Angelou.

But by Tuesday night, after Mr. Trump had appeared to shift course again, Clinton aides adjusted. In her victory speech in Philadelphia, Mrs. Clinton’s prepared remarks included a line meant to rev up female voters at Mr. Trump’s expense: “If fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the ‘woman card,’ then deal me in,” she said.

On a private flight after Mrs. Clinton’s victory speech, her aides could hardly believe their luck when they learned that Mr. Trump, speaking about an hour later, had used the term woman’s card in his own victory speech.

A video that spliced Mr. Trump’s comments with Mrs. Clinton’s line was quickly sent out to her supporters without any further commentary.

Allies of both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump viewed the exchange on Tuesday night as an opening round in what will probably unfold in the months ahead. “I’m surprised they aren’t selling decks of cards yet,” said Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist who is supporting Mrs. Clinton. “They should just go nuts with it.”

That may yet come. On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign appealed for donations by offering supporters their “very own official Hillary for America woman card” — a hot pink credit card with the words “Congratulations: You’re in the majority!”