In the wake of terrorist attacks abroad and a greater sense of global insecurity, today’s presidential candidates have not only shifted their focus to foreign policy, but have heightened the rhetoric they use to credential themselves as the next Commander-in-Chief. This presidential role is arguably among the most difficult and consequential, but also replete with the most masculine expectations. The assertiveness, strength, independence, and emotional restraint expected of those who lead the nation’s military and make life-and-death foreign policy decisions align with stereotypical characteristics of masculinity and are those most associated with men. Additionally, research shows that men are presumed to be most competent on issues related to defense and foreign policy, each under the purview of the nation’s Commander-in-Chief.
While male candidates may have a gender advantage in meeting these masculine demands, they must still assure voters that stereotypes align with reality. Moreover, they must work to prove they are the most qualified and most capable candidates to protect the nation and fight terror abroad. In a speech this week to the Council of Foreign Relations, Governor Chris Christie outlined his stance on combatting ISIS and explained, “The goal and the intent of the American president has to be first and foremost to prevent another generation of those widows and orphans on American soil.” By describing his role as protector of women and children, Christie reinforces perceptions of masculine power and feminine vulnerability. But masculinity is also most overtly associated with brute force, and multiple candidates have emphasized their willingness – and even eagerness – to shift away from diplomatic efforts and escalate the military actions taken against perceived enemies abroad and at home. Within days of the Paris attacks, a Super PAC backing Republican candidate John Kasich put out a new ad titled “Commander-in-Chief,” in which Kasich tells an audience that, “negotiation, ambivalence, or delay are not acceptable” in the global war on terror. The voiceover adds, “Our lives depend on a Commander-in-Chief with experience,” and describes Kasich as “the first [candidate] with a plan to destroy ISIS.” Senator Marco Rubio put forth his own plan for attack on Tuesday, telling an audience in Iowa that he wants “the world to see how these ISIS leadership cry like babies when they’re captured.” In South Carolina, Governor Jeb Bush asked critically, “Are we fighting a war or is this a law enforcement exercise?,” adding, “Make it a war.” The rules of that war, argue Donald Trump and Ben Carson, cannot be “politically correct.” After Trump expressed his support for waterboarding as a torture tactic, Carson responded, “I agree that there’s no such thing as political correctness when you are fighting an enemy who wants to destroy you.” Each of these statements reinforces the idea that force is strength, aversion to force is weakness, and both displaying and communicating assertive strength are essential roles of the Commander-in-Chief.
In proving their own strength credentials, these candidates are simultaneously working to cast doubt on whether their opponents are strong enough – cue masculine enough – to be Commander-in-Chief. Donald Trump has been most explicit in his critiques, as was evident in his recent comments on ABC News’ This Week:
[Terrorists] only understand strength. They don’t understand weakness. Somebody like Jeb, and others that are running against me — and by the way, Hillary is another one. I mean, Hillary is a person who doesn’t have the strength or the stamina, in my opinion, to be president. She doesn’t have strength or stamina. She’s not a strong enough person to be president.
Trump’s comments not only define strength credentials in relation to physical stamina, but also raise an important question about how women candidates are perceived as they seek to prove themselves as capable for the most masculine role of executive office.
Research conduced by Jennifer Lawless in 2002, soon after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, shed some light on the hurdles that women candidates might face in a political environment dominated by perceived insecurity and focused on foreign policy. In a nationwide survey, Lawless found that voters in this type of political environment found three stereotypically masculine traits – assertive, tough, self-confident – among the top four traits they rated most important for political candidates, and they associated those traits most often with men. A majority of respondents also viewed male candidates as more competent than female candidates to deal with military affairs, and 40% viewed men as more capable than women to protect the United States from future terrorist attacks. Lastly, Lawless found that respondents’ belief that men are more competent on issues of national security depresses their likelihood of supporting a female Commander-in-Chief.
These findings are not isolated to survey data. In 1984, vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro was asked on Meet the Press if she would be able, if necessary, to push the button to launch nuclear weapons. No man seeking the presidency or vice presidency was ever asked a similar question on national television. In 2008, when asked what problems might come if a woman was elected president, pundit Marc Rudov quickly responded, “You mean besides the PMS and the mood swings, right?” Less overtly, underlying biases of masculine strength and feminine weakness, masculine independence versus feminine dependence, and masculine protectionism as the match to feminine vulnerability are all cued by candidate gender.
Candidates and campaigns, however, play an important role in either replicating or combatting those stereotypical cues or concerns. Just as the male candidates in 2016 reinforce perceptions of their masculine strength, female candidates have often worked even harder to prove they, too, are “man enough” for the job. In 2008, Hillary Clinton emphasized her foreign policy credentials, lined up a long list of military brass to support her bid, and was very careful not to show any signs of potential weakness – or indecisiveness – on national security issues, including her Iraq vote. Rhetorically, she went so far as to say in April 2008, in a very controversial statement, that if Iran attacked Israel, “we would be able to totally obliterate them.” Related to these positions, Clinton has been labeled a “hawk,” a tag that breaks with gender stereotypes in a way that may – in fact – be necessary to combat the gender-based doubts of presidential leadership that Lawless found in 2002.
In the 2016 race, Clinton has been similarly resolute on foreign policy issues, telling a crowd at the Council on Foreign Relations this week, “I will take a back seat to no one in protecting the United States of America.” Carly Fiorina, too, has taken tough stands on military engagement, criticizing Democratic leaders – Clinton among them – for not being tough enough on “radical Islamic terrorism.” Her desire for military build-up, as detailed in the second GOP debate, and her recent call to war are consistent with women’s efforts to clear – and even exceed – the bar to prove that their gender presents no liability to their leadership on national security.
Hillary Clinton seems to have cleared this bar in 2016. According to a recent CBS/YouGov poll in battleground states (IA, NH, and SC), Clinton leads among all candidates– Democrats and Republicans – in battleground state voters’ perceptions of readiness to be Commander-in-Chief. Those perceptions may explain some shift in her foreign policy rhetoric from 2008 to 2016, allowing her – for example – to call for nuanced and measured responses to terrorism that her Republican counterparts have labeled as weakness. While this may be consistent with the 2016 campaign’s overall rejection of the 2008 strategy to simply adapt to the masculine rules of the game, it only comes after Clinton established foreign policy credentials as a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State and earned masculine credentials of strength and self-confidence by employing tough rhetoric and being unwilling to waiver on even her most controversial vote on the Iraq War. Arguably, it’s only after those credentials have been proven that any candidate – especially women – can offer more complex positions on how to best protect the nation.
As the unrest throughout the world shapes our political debates at home, observing – and even questioning – the masculine rhetoric and requirements of proving Commander-in-Chief credentials is important to being a consumer of and contributor to the presidential campaign. Identifying what the candidates would really do in the face of crises means sorting through the linguistic clutter and masculine performance, and evaluating their proposals might require reimagining the role and revaluing the traits deemed most essential to the next Commander-in-Chief.