Although her supporters call her iron-clad, claiming her history has already been examined and inspected to a degree that makes a Swift-Boat-Veteran style attack impossible, Senator Clinton is vulnerable to an especially reprehensive variety of ambush: homophobia.
Let's face it: from Dick Morris, former Clinton ally, to the writers of the L Word, folks believe--or, at least, do not disbelieve--that Hillary Clinton is queer. (Two words: Senator Grisham.) She may well be. But whether she is or she isn't--the answer is a resounding maybe, as a friend would say--bears no relevance to the big issue, which is what will happen when conservative groups begin running photos and spots insinuating that Senator Clinton is a lesbian.
Pre-suppose HRC receives the Democratic nomination. Set aside personal opinions on the Senator. The scenario to follow is interesting if even only examined in the hypothetical.
GOP attacks, firing up the flames of homophobia. There is renewed investigation into her early sexual history, Morris-style, or simple fabrication, at which the Republicans excel. Imagine the average US home receiving media barrages of her speeches at GLAAD, etc. events and loose insinuations of her wild sapphic ways at Wellesley. From a political point of view, her sexual orientation is irrelevant: it's about what the US public buys. We have on our hands a very interesting campaign along lines of gender and sexuality if the public believes her to be a lesbian.
Rove tapped homophobia to lead the Republicans to victory in 2004. He will happily attempt to draw upon that same well of bigotry in 2008, delighting in the conundrum resulting for Senator Clinton.
Politically, it is very difficult to respond. Clinton can declaim the spots and deny that she is gay. Or declaim the spots and issue a statement supportive of GLBT rights. With the former, she risks alientating liberals; with the latter, conservatives. Optimal response would be a combination. To respond at all, of course, lets the Republicans set her agenda, redirecting attention. Letting the GOP set the agenda cost us the WH in 2000 and 2004. Yet weaker responses, such as ignoring the insinuations and ads, may allow the same SBV phenomenon as suffered Kerry to compromise Senator Clinton's campaign. Kerry did not strike back at the SBV or any other negative campaigning against him, which was a mistake. (A note: The SBV campaign actually didn't significantly hurt Kerry. The phenomenon to which I refer is more of the "flip-flopper" variety, wherin the GOP distracts and divides, frames the issues, the debate, and even the opposition for the entire country.)
Obviously, optimally, sexuality would never be grounds for a SBV campaign or reason to fear an electoral impact. But 2004 proves that we are worlds away from that nirvana.
So, what happens?
- Could this version of events take place?
- How should a campaign in such a situation respond?
- Once the SBV-style campaign runs, can the public ever be convinced to the contrary, that HRC is heterosexual?
- Would/should HRC try to convince the public of her heterosexuality at all? Or would it compromise her integrity and principles?
- What if proof did turn up? What then?
- Most of all, would such a SBV campaign matter to the average voter?
- Could policy issues take center stage despite such a manuever?