And the race is on. I’ve been generally open–minded about the Republican candidates this time around. We all know what it’s like to have a favorite early on, only to have the chaos of campaigns spin everything around to the point where we’re chanting “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home” by the end of the night.
Candidates who believe there’s one strategy, or the American people are “dumb,” or the machine will usher them through, will be victims this time around. Victims not of circumstance, but of underestimating the citizen, and even the so-called “outsiders” in their midst.
While everyone was fixated on Donald Trump, someone else changed the game. Carly Fiorina didn’t come out of nowhere, she came right through the front door. The woman CNN tried to keep off the main stage dominated the debate and shocked her fellow GOP presidential candidates into realizing, perhaps Mr. Trump isn’t who they should worry about.
Without exception, and on both sides of the aisle, Ms. Fiorina is considered the winner of last week’s debate.
There have also been some accusations of sexism in the post-debate television conversations. Ranging from anchors to pundits, we heard that Ms. Fiorina had been “shrill,” or even the classic “strident.” She should “smile more” said one pundit. She needs to be “softer” argued another.
We will never hear those suggestions of some of the angrier men on stage. At one point Gov. Christie barked at his colleagues that no one was interested in their business career accomplishments. No one suggested in the aftermath that he should have been softer, more smiley, or less … strident. The outburst did not help him, but some took it as being … commanding. I took it as him needing a Snickers.
I disagree that naive requests of a woman seeking to be the most powerful person on Earth should be, well, nicer, is sexism per se. But it is a reflection of how unique it is in American politics to have a woman, on her own accord, in the most important arena in the world.
There’s a simple fact about how women communicate. Instinctually, we tend to communicate indirectly because of issues of safety. Most of the other humans we encounter are likely larger than us, certainly the men we encounter, so the best way to engage is indirectly, in a manner that is less or even non-confrontational.
It’s not that we all choose to adapt that mode of speaking, it’s been handed down to us by ancestors who preferred to not be dragged out of the cave by their hair and thrown off the cliff. For saying something the wrong way.
Some studies even assess the body language of women as being 55-85 percent of our complete communication method. This is why, in part, we have fewer women in talk radio, a medium I’ve enjoyed since 1993. Talk radio requires a bluntness which is not the usual style of women. Body language works on television, but not, for obvious reasons, on talk radio. Because of that, everything has to be conveyed verbally, directly, through not just words, but with tone as well.
Now as women are pursuing and moving into positions of power, the same surprise with the style difference may be disturbing at first, but people will get used to it.
So, the requests from gadflies and political critics that Ms. Fiorina should soften it up a bit isn’t relevant. What those who are taken aback by her demeanor, which matches the seriousness and determination of her male rivals, will eventually see is the commanding, confident and charismatic nature of leadership. Sometimes it involves a smile, sometimes it doesn’t. What it must always reflect is a stately understanding of circumstance that will eventually make you forget that the president happens to be a woman.
The irony of this is Ms. Fiorina’s break-out moment was responding to Mr. Trump’s attempt to diminish her by denigrating her face. Her response will be recognized as one of the most remarkable moments in presidential debate history; a moment when everyone on the stage, and watching, understood the game changed. It is in the category of President Reagan’s retort to Walter Mondale that he would not “hold my opponent’s youth and inexperience against him,” to Lloyd Bentsen chastising Sen. Dan Quayle’s attempt to compare himself to President Kennedy, with “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Ultimately, our leaders are not our parents, they’re the people who must make life and death decisions virtually every day. We need people who understand that. We are now rejecting the politically correct notion that leadership must act a certain way to please or pacify others. We are rejecting political correctness. The good news for the Republican voter is that the lineup of people asking to be our leadership is impressive, and the person who prevails will be one who proves him or herself, as Ms. Fiorina puts it, proves themselves over time and under pressure.
On the morning after the debate, CNN asked Ms. Fiorina, again, about Mr. Trump’s comments and sexism. She noted, “It’s still different for women. It’s only a woman whose appearance would be talked about while running for president — never a man. And that’s what women understand.”
“Women are half this nation. Half the potential of this nation,” she added. “But somehow we still spend a lot of time talking about women’s appearance and not their qualifications.”
That’s true, but it’s something that will change as the American people see alternatives to that narrative, and as long as the woman leading the way breaks through expectations born of habit. Americans want something better, someone outside of the system with a love for country and understanding of the arena. This time around we very well may get the first woman president, but a conservative who happens to be woman who can actually do the job.
• Tammy Bruce is a radio talk show host.