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Let the Republicans Talk About Clinton's Age and Health

05/29/2014 08:15 am ET | Updated Jul 29, 2014
Paul Marotta via Getty Images

Karl Rove's latest attempt to make Hillary Clinton's health and age an issue in her campaign, or non-campaign, for president was buffoonish and embarrassing for Rove, but it was also probably not very effective. Although voters have a right to know these things about a candidate who would be 69 years old on inauguration day, and who had a head injury not that long ago, the corollary that it helps the Republicans to have Rove raise them in such a way, is not true. It also demonstrates that Clinton is a truly unusual, and increasingly lucky, politician.

As the establishment Democratic candidate who has 12 years of experience in the Senate and then the State Department, it could be expected that a campaign for president, whether in a primary or a general, the main issues would be things like, Clinton's relatively light legislative record, big-picture foreign policy questions based on what she did during her tenure at Foggy Bottom, or even whether her ideas on domestic politics reflect the best and most innovative approaches or are products of the same tired Washington world that she has inhabited for more than two decades.

Instead, Clinton has to respond to poorly and nastily phrased assertions about her health, age and daughter's pregnancy. Moreover, she has had the good fortune to not have to respond to the questions directly, but to the tone and insertions of the questions. The basic question Rove raised -- whether or not Clinton was healthy enough to server as president after her accident last year -- is not a crazy or inappropriate question. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, as well as candidates Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008, all had to address the issue of their age, and Clinton, should she decide to run, should have to do the same thing. Again, a respectful question about her age and related health is fine, but using gendered language to do that is not. Clinton has been fortunate, and politically savvy enough to be able to avoid these issues by focusing on the nasty undertone of the question.

The question this raises for the Republican Party, and whoever they nominate in 2016, is whether they are smart enough to run a campaign that focuses on Clinton's record, accomplishment, missteps and the like, rather than her gender and increasingly less polarizing personality. This would be hard for a party that has generally proved itself unable to avoid that temptation, but will be even more difficult because the Clinton campaign will do what it can to make it seem like their opponents are only talking about gender- and personality-related issues. Ultimately, the Democratic campaign will exploit whatever mistakes a party, given to making a lot of verbal miscues and the occasional misogynist rant, makes.

Being a larger-than-life political figure, before even announcing for president, is unusual and provides advantages and disadvantages for Clinton. Her name recognition is effectively universal, but most Americans have heard more than a few negative things about her for the better part of a quarter century. However, during the last few years, Clinton has very skillfully and assiduously managed her image so that she is more beloved than any time during that quarter century. Her opponents, for their part, still cannot stop themselves from going after her for the same perceived weaknesses that have more or less lost any ability to move new voters over the course of more than two decades.

Clinton has long been a target for nasty and sexist attacks, beginning even before she became first lady. She has never been able to prevent those types of comments and criticism for the simple reason that sexism is still very widespread and, as a powerful and outspoken woman, she has always been a target for this kind of nastiness. Clinton's true political genius has been to turn this from a negative to a positive. In the current climate, particularly in the absence of a Democratic primary should Clinton run, comments about Clinton's appearance, weight, hair or clothes will excite the Republican base, but accomplish little more than that.

More importantly, in a general election campaign where white women over 40 will be an important swing vote, a that Clinton is still fighting against sexism and the old boys network is much more helpful than a narrative that maybe Clinton has run out of ideas, is too conservative on economic issues or too sympathetic to the neoconservative approach to foreign policy. These assertions may or may not be true, but they are potentially more damaging than the tired attacks that would have been politically valuable in 1992.

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