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On Politics With Lisa Lerer: The Sexism Shield

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

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On Saturday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made a campaign stop at Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in Columbia, S.C., and asked whether to use “fingers or forks” to eat the fried chicken. The mockery that followed online? Sexism, cried social media!

The next day, Senator Amy Klobuchar announced her presidential bid in the midst of a Minnesota snow shower — and a blizzard of stories describing her demanding behavior as a boss. Asha Harris, a voter at the rally, told a Times reporter that the critique was “plainly sexist.”

The historic number of women running for president was bound to change the dynamics of the contest. And now, just a couple months in, we’re seeing one way that could take shape: sexism as a shield, fending off criticism that, on its surface, would seem nongendered.

“The risk-benefit calculation by operatives has totally shifted because of this moment, and because of the alertness, particularly among women in the Democratic electorate, on this issue,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

For more than a decade, Hillary Clinton was the only model for how to deal with gender in a presidential race. Now, Mrs. Clinton’s loss, coupled with the #MeToo Movement, has forced a national conversation about gender and power, priming Democratic primary voters to think differently about leadership and the barriers women face in politics.

Part of what’s happening is simply a reflection of something Americans have never seen before: Six different women using different campaign strategies to win the White House.

It makes sense that a greater number of female candidates would provide more opportunities for sexist treatment. My colleague Maggie Astor has a terrific piece today explaining all the challenging and frequently implicit ways gender bias can manifest on the campaign trail.

But, at the same time, for the first time in the history of presidential campaigns, gender is likely more of an advantage than it is a liability. That means it can be leveraged in ways we’ve never before seen on a national stage.

Even before Ms. Klobuchar formally entered the race, her aides were already telling reporters that accounts of her difficult management style played into sexist ideas about women and power. Aides and supporters of Senator Kamala Harris argue there is gender bias in the view that her past relationship with Willie Brown, a powerful California politician who was married when the two dated, could be a liability.

So where does this leave the voters trying to sort through these claims of sexism? Jennifer L. Lawless, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, suggests a three-pronged test:

1. Would the same allegations be leveled against a man?

2. Do they only matter because she’s a woman?

3. Is the same criticism being leveled at multiple female candidates?

By Dr. Lawless’s assessment, the more serious problem for Ms. Klobuchar isn’t that the stories about her bad treatment of her staff tap into sexist tropes — it’s that they conflict with her “Minnesota nice” public persona.

Now, having the very first question Ms. Gillibrand face as a candidate be about her “likability”? That’s sexist. But, Dr. Lawless says, making fun of her fried chicken cluelessness is just another manifestation of a political rule as old as photography: Never eat ugly.

Just ask Gerald Ford (tamale with wrapper), John Kerry (Swiss cheese on cheesesteak), or that photo of Michael Bloomberg and pizza we highlighted just a couple weeks ago.

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We were curious to know more about H.R. 1, a voting and ethics bill making waves in Congress. So we asked Catie Edmondson, who covers Capitol Hill for The Times, to break it down for us:

The first major piece of legislation House Democrats unveiled in their new majority is an ambitious, 600-page bill that reads like an anthology of liberal anti-corruption proposals. Intended to show voters that they are following through on their campaign pledges, the bill, called H.R. 1, has three overarching goals: to dismantle barriers to the ballot box, end big money in politics, and impose stricter ethics rules on government officials.

It also, unsurprisingly, takes a few jabs at the president.

The bill is so sprawling that even the SparkNotes version put out by its lead sponsor, Representative John Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland, is a whopping 22 pages, divided into sections including “Voting,” “Campaign Finance,” and “Ethics.” Here are a few of the highlights.

H.R. 1 would:

• Automatically register citizens to vote.

• Require states to allow voters to register on the day of a federal election.

• Make Election Day a federal employment holiday.

• Require presidents and candidates for the nation’s highest offices to release their tax returns.

• Create a matching system for small donations to campaigns.

• Ban campaign contributions from corporations with significant foreign ownership.

Opposing the bill has become a pet interest of Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader. (He has dubbed it “the Democrat Politician Protection Act” and mused publicly that much of it is “probably” unconstitutional.) So it faces dim prospects in the Senate, making H.R. 1, as one of my colleagues put it, less a legislative vehicle than a political platform for the Democrats heading into 2020.

Even if little, or none, of it becomes law, Democrats will use it to draw a stark contrast between their values and the president’s — and to drive a wedge between the occupant in the Oval Office and voters.

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A former Miss Costa Rica says a former president and Nobel laureate attacked her. Telling her story was hard. Finding a lawyer to take the case was harder.

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