Hillary Clinton is the voodoo doll for the Republicans. The very much alive white men running for president are no longer deterred, if they ever were, from going after an opponent just because she's female. Anyone who thought the Republican candidates would be squeamish can think again. That's as it should be. Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel would understand. (The former Mrs. Sarkozy would not.)
This was clearly evident in the most recent Republican debate. The sharpest attack, the most dramatic presentation of his differences with Hillary, was made by John McCain. The old Navy fighter pilot was the sage hero, scorching her economics while drawing attention to his own war experience. He exposed Hillary's support for spending $1 million in taxpayer money for a museum about the Woodstock Concert of 1969. "Now my friends, I wasn't there," he said in a mocking tone. "I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time." Indeed he was, and few in the national television audience had forgotten that he was a prisoner of the Vietnamese, while the hippies here were playing their music as if it were the food of love.
Perhaps the other candidates couldn't withstand close scrutiny of their personal earmarks, but John McCain came off as one of the seasoned grown-ups. This demonstrates how and why he's enjoying a surge of sorts, late though it may be, and maybe too late. Leadership has become a crucial issue, and he pointed out that he was the commander of the largest squadron in the U.S. Navy, and doesn't need any on-the-job management training. As prospective commander in chief, his experience easily trumps Hillary's.
Another view of Hillary was on display the other day as Tim Russert presided over "Meet the Press" and a discussion with four female pundits. To emphasize how far women have come, Judy Woodruff observed that Russert was the "honorary skirt" at the table. The ladies talked about Hillary's new coquettish humor, joking that women her age are getting a little attention from men. But would her attempt to soften her harsh image make her popular enough with women to overcome the numbers of male voters who aren't likely to be impressed no matter what she does?
When Hillary was first lady, Sally Bedell Smith recalls in her new book, "For Love of Politics Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years," she was judged harshly by suburban women as being "threatening and unwomanly," "ruthless and greedy for power," and "very controlling and self-serving." Has any of that changed?
Hillary is trying to do to her style what Mitt Romney has done with questions about issues of substance reverse, overturn and contradict. Hillary might yet appear in a television episode of "Top Chef" to demonstrate how to bake her famous cookies for a ladies' tea party. If Hillary now has to prove herself as maternal and feminine, none of the Republican candidates have to prove their masculinity. None were at Woodstock. And even Ron Paul wouldn't be goofy enough to take Mike Dukakis' seat in a tank.
Flaws aside, the Republican candidates all looked comfortable in their skins. None suffer John Edwards' reputation as a pretty boy fresh from the beauty shop, or Barack Obama's reputation as a preacher whose soaring rhetoric often outruns substance.
Hillary's pollster and chief strategist says she won't run as a "woman candidate." But he tells us that one in four women, who may not be Democrats, will vote for her because she's a woman and they want to see a woman, any woman, make a historic breakthrough. That sure sounds like "woman candidate" to me.
"The only reason to vote for her is that you believe she is the most qualified to be president," Mark Penn, the pollster and strategist, quickly adds. But real concerns could trump pride of sisterhood. Mike Huckabee offers two: "Taxes would go up" and "the security of our nation would be at stake."
Hillary has had more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine. When she was first lady, her psychic friend Jean Houston said she carried the burden of 5,000 years of subservience to men, and compared her to Joan of Arc. When her husband became the comeback kid, she was Lady Macbeth who actually got out those "damned spots." But that was then and this is now. The questions for voters men and women are simple. Has she come a long way, baby? Or has she simply put on another disguise?