Toronto Star

March 13, 1999

`Mommy' and `Daddy' battle for power

While U.S. political parties remain divided by gender, the feminine side is gaining

By Thomas Edsall
Special to The Star

WASHINGTON - ELIZABETH DOLE, soccer moms, George W. Bush and compassionate conservatism, the Family Medical Leave Act and the assault weapons ban - each is part of the ``feminization of politics,'' a trend that has begun to shape the 2000 race for U.S. president.

As more women have entered the workforce and developed their own political agenda, politicians have given increasing priority to issues women identify as important and to a more personal campaign style to attract the support of female voters - 51 per cent of the electorate.

Democrats, in recent years, have capitalized on the phenomenon. President Bill Clinton designed his 1996 strategy to take advantage of it, and won decisively.

Republicans, in contrast, are divided. Ronald Reagan and George Bush defied the feminization of politics and won every presidential election in the 1980s with a majority male constituency - a strategy that carried House and Senate Republicans to success in 1994.

But now, in the face of the 1996 and 1998 setbacks and an impeachment drive that alienated legions of men and even more women, Republicans are split between those who would come to terms with the feminization of politics and those who would reaffirm the party's tough stands on defence spending and commitment to deregulated markets.

While the feminization of politics has produced a practical change in the way politics is conducted, it also is an evolving concept that is viewed differently by different groups. It translates, according Clinton allies, into policies that aim to protect the poor, to ease conflicts between family and work and provide safety-net supports for those facing economic hardships.

The dominance of the national agenda by such issues as social security, medicare and education gives further strength to the feminization process. All these issues are given higher priorities by women than men, in contrast to an agenda of tax cuts, defence spending and throw-away-the-key anti-crime policies favoured more by men.

From the early 1980s to the middle of this decade, the feminization of politics was a concept used largely by conservative Republicans to describe what they saw as the softening and weakening of the Democratic party.

The gender-based division of the two parties prompted new ways of looking at partisanship.

Christopher Matthews, columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, has written that the Democratic and Republican parties have become, respectively, the ``Mommy'' and ``Daddy'' parties. Republican consultant Don Sipple has described the GOP as the party of ``discipline'' and Democrats as the ``therapy'' party.

Since the 1980 election, a majority of those who say they are Republicans are men and a majority of those who say they are Democrats are women. This division reflects different attitudes toward government, foreign intervention, gun control and a number of other issues, and on which party best addressed their views.

But the 1996 presidential election brought to an abrupt end to the view that Democratic dependence on the votes of women was a political weakness. Clinton adopted a strategy to explicitly attract female voters, while careful not to further alienate men, and defeated Robert Dole entirely on the basis of women's votes.

As the 1996 election approached, the Republican party began to shift gears. Some on the political right believe that when Elizabeth Dole took the floor at the convention in San Diego for an emotional, intimate discussion ``about the man I love,'' it was a transforming event for the party.

This year, the party sent forth a single, divorced mother, Rep. Jennifer Dunn, to respond to Clinton's State of the Union address. ``I've been a single mother since my boys were little,'' Dunn told a national television audience. ``I know how that knot in the pit of your stomach feels. I've been there.''

Now, the GOP's likely presidential front-runner, George W. Bush, advocates a ``compassionate conservatism,'' designed to take the edge off the party's image as hard and uncaring.

Francis Fukuyama, a conservative professor of public policy at George Mason University, said that the ``feminization of world politics'' has produced ``very positive results.'' Such phenomena, he said, as ``aggression, violence, war and intense competition are more closely associated with men than women. A world run by women would follow different rules, it would appear, and it is toward that sort of world that all post-industrial or Western societies are moving.''


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